Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Looking for an Iraq precedent? Try Honduras


The report last week that Iraq's recently installed prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was setting up a new security service, the General Security Directorate, to "annihilate" terrorists, rang a bell. It was a very loud bell -- and it needed to be, in order to be heard over all the other alarms competing for attention.

Allawi's new initiative followed on the heels of his earlier announcement of granting himself emergency powers, such as banning groups considered seditious, imposing curfews and detaining anyone he chooses.

What Allawi's new measures brought to mind was the career of John Negroponte, the diplomat who replaced Paul Bremer as our man in Baghdad.

Both Bremer and Negroponte have had Henry Kissinger in their backgrounds -- in Negroponte's case, during his early service in Vietnam, which included time at the Paris Peace talks. Negroponte shows up wherever America is intervening: After Vietnam, it was to Central America, most notably an ambassadorship in Honduras.

And it is in Negroponte's time there that Iraq's new security service has its notorious precedent. The chief of the Honduran national police force, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, ran an infamous death squad, Battalion 316. Alvarez and Negroponte were great buddies, many claim. Negroponte's job was to make sure Honduras was a stable supply depot for the Reagan administration's support of the contras, the CIA-backed movement opposing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Negroponte became the target of a number of human rights groups back then but, unlike, say, Oliver North, Negroponte managed to stay afloat in the world of diplomacy. He did so well the Reagan administration presented him with an award, the Legion of Merit.

Negroponte told the Washington Post recently he was proud of his service in Honduras. "It was certainly my job to be concerned with the Honduran march toward democracy'' -- from being a ''military government to a civilian government.'' Sound familiar?

Iraq's new prime minister, like Negroponte, is well connected to the CIA, and Allawi's new policies are following a script Negroponte could have written. Iraq isn't a small country in Central America, but our role in Iraq and our presence there is duplicating our policies in Central America. And if you think Central America is an American success story, you can have hopes for Iraq.

Negroponte is yet another member of the Bush administration with a long history with the Bush family and -- like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld -- Negroponte's familiarity is more with the father than the son. Negroponte became the U.S. representative to the United Nations a week after 9/11, which muted the criticism to his appointment. The Bushes do not like to go very far afield when they do their most sensitive business -- be it arms for hostages in the Iran-contra case, or overseeing Iraq's transition from a military government headed now by Allawi to its ''march toward democracy.''

Negroponte's specialty in Honduras was setting one rebel group against another, getting them to eliminate one another. Whether he can do that on a much larger scale in Iraq -- setting tribe against tribe, sect against sect -- remains to be seen.

But, if Prime Minister Allawi, our former CIA asset, wants to know how to turn his General Security Directorate into an effective death squad, he knows where to go for advice and information. But Negroponte still claims ignorance about all that, just as Ken Lay claims he didn't know anything about what was going on at Enron, despite being praised and amply rewarded for his time there running it.

First published in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 25, 2004



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