Washington’s creation of “death squads” to fight the insurgency in Iraq would represent a shocking new low in a campaign that has already flouted the Geneva Conventions too many times, Human Rights Watch said today.

Newsweek reported Saturday that the U.S. Department of Defense is debating the establishment of Iraqi squads to assassinate Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, or bring them to secret facilities for interrogation.

Experience from countries such as Colombia, Sudan and Russia (in Chechnya) shows that “death squads” and paramilitary groups created to combat insurgencies take on a life of their own and are often difficult to rein in. Once established, it is difficult to prevent them from killing whomever they want for whatever reasons they want, opening up the possibility that civilians will be targeted because of personal or political vendettas in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

“If this plan is real, the Pentagon will rue the day it dreamed it up,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “They are creating a monster that could someday kill the very Iraqi democracy they say they want to build.”

Human Rights Watch noted that U.S. and Iraqi forces already have the legal authority to arrest insurgent leaders and, if they resist, to kill them in combat. But deliberately targeting civilians or executing combatants in custody would be a war crime.

According to Newsweek, the Pentagon is referring to the plan as the “Salvador option,” a reference to the death squads supported by the United States during the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s which became notorious for killing unarmed supporters of the opposition. It also harkens back to Operation Phoenix, a 1969 CIA program of targeted assassinations against the civilian infrastructure that supported the insurgency in South Vietnam, which resulted in widespread atrocities as well.

“The clandestine nature of ‘death squads’ makes it difficult to establish their chain of command, but no one will be fooled should the Pentagon choose to use this subterfuge to commit war crimes,” said Roth.

One military source quoted in Newsweek suggested that a key problem was the unwillingness of the Sunni population to turn insurgents in to the government. “The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists,” the source was quoted as saying. “From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.” Human Rights Watch said that it will be all the more difficult to discourage terrorist attacks on civilians if the United States is deliberately imposing its own military “cost” on Iraqi civilians.

“The further degradation of the Geneva Conventions would also have dangerous long-term consequences for captured US military personnel and even US civilians,” said Roth. “This is the opposite signal that the United States should be sending when it’s trying to convince people to abandon terrorism as a military or political tool.”