- John Negroponte, the United States' first ambassador
to Iraq in more than a decade, presented his credentials
to the country's interim president on Tuesday. "I have
just had the privilege of presenting my credentials to
Ghazi Yawar, who
graciously welcomed me to his country as US ambassador,"
Passing on greetings from
President George W Bush, Negroponte said the US
administration had three objectives in its relationship
with the new Iraq: helping the host country defeat
"terrorists and criminal elements who oppose a free
Iraq", aiding reconstruction and economic development,
and supporting Iraq's democratization and the rule of
In earlier comments at Senate hearings on
Negroponte's nomination, Washington's former ambassador
to the United Nations, talking about how much
"sovereignty" the country's new government would enjoy,
when US military forces remain in control of security,
commented: "When it comes to issues like [the siege of]
Fallujah," said Negroponte, "I think that is going to be
the kind of situation that is going to have to ... be
the subject of real dialogue between our military
commanders, the new Iraqi government, and, I think, the
United States mission as well."
That was too
much for Andres Thomas Conteris, a human rights and
peace activist who was sitting in the hearing room. At
that point, he stood up and, in a determined voice,
said: "There is no sovereignty, Mr Ambassador, if the US
continues to exercise security. Senators, please ask the
ambassador about Battalion 316. Ask him about a death
squad in Honduras that he supported."
personnel quickly confronted Conteris and escorted him
from the room, while Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Chairman Richard Lugar gaveled the hearing back to
order, and Negroponte, the smooth-as-silk career
diplomat fluent in five languages, went on as if nothing
And, while everyone in the hearing
room knew exactly what Conteris was referring to, the
senators also ignored the interruption, repeatedly
praising Negroponte for his distinguished career and his
courage in taking on such a challenging and potentially
dangerous assignment. Only two senators alluded to
Honduras, albeit obliquely, suggesting they may have had
some differences with the nominee in the distant past,
but that it was all behind them now.
by all accounts an accomplished diplomat who has held
senior posts in the White House and the State Department
and headed US embassies in Quito, Tegucigalpa, Mexico
City and Manila, will direct the world's largest US
embassy, which has now opened its doors in Baghdad. He
will be in charge of nearly 2,000 employees, most of
A total of 150 US advisors will
be assigned to Iraq's ministries and serve as the eyes
and ears of the embassy on the ground, helping to
monitor the spending of the US$18.4 billion in US
reconstruction funds earmarked for Iraq. Along with 50
counterparts from other coalition countries active in
Iraq, they will serve under a US embassy wing called the
Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO).
"IRMO will be the driving force of the embassy
as it consolidates reports from the advisors on the
functioning of Iraq's government. It has a number of
functions, primarily it is to help ambassador Negroponte
coordinate the basic assistance efforts we have here,"
US deputy head of mission, James Jeffrey, told Agence
A long-time friend of Secretary
of State Colin Powell, Negroponte is generally
considered to be a pragmatist - rather than an ideologue
- albeit one with a hawkish reputation that dates to his
work as a young diplomat in Vietnam in the 1960s. Some
describe him as a low-key version of outgoing Coalition
Provisional Authority chief L Paul Bremer.
Bremer did not work in Honduras.
"I spoke up
because Negroponte at that moment was talking about
sovereignty," Conteris, whose mother is Uruguayan and
who has lived in Bolivia and Honduras, told IPS later.
"I lived in Honduras for five years, and I know the
impact Negroponte's policies had there in the early
1980s [when] Honduras was known as the USS Honduras,
basically an occupied aircraft carrier."
Negroponte was sent by the incoming
administration of then president Ronald Reagan (1981-89)
to Tegucigalpa in early 1981 to transform Honduras into
a military and intelligence base directed against
Nicaragua and the left-wing insurgents in neighboring El
Salvador - a mission he largely accomplished in the four
years he spent running what at that time was
Washington's biggest embassy in the Americas.
do so, he and the station chief of the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), Donald Winter, formed a close
alliance with General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the
army's ambitious and murderous commander who admired -
and implemented - the "dirty war" tactics that he had
learned from the Argentine military in the late 1970s.
The Argentine junta sent advisers to Honduras at
Alvarez's request to begin building what would become a
US-backed contra force against Nicaragua.
Negroponte's arrival, Honduras was a sleepy, relatively
untroubled backwater in the region whose military,
unlike those of its neighbors, was seen as relatively
progressive, if corrupt, and loathe to resort to actual
violence against dissidents. But with the support of the
CIA and the Argentines, Alvarez moved to change that
radically, according to declassified documents as well
as detailed and award-winning reporting by the Baltimore
Sun in the mid-1990s.
A special intelligence
unit of the Honduran Armed Forces, called Battalion 316,
was put together by Alvarez and supplied and trained by
the CIA and the Argentines. It was a death squad that
kidnapped and tortured hundreds of real or suspected
"subversives", "disappeared" at least 180 of them -
including US missionaries - during Negroponte's tenure.
Such activities were previously unknown in Honduras.
At the same time, Negroponte, who was often
referred to as "proconsul" by the Honduran media,
oversaw the expansion of two major military bases used
by US forces and Nicaraguan contras, and, after the US
Congress put strict limits on the training of
Salvadorian soldiers in-country, he "persuaded" the
government to build a Regional Military Training Center
on Honduran territory, despite the fact that Honduras
and El Salvador were traditional enemies who had fought
a bloody war less than 15 years before.
Throughout this period, Negroponte steadfastly
defended Alvarez, at one point calling him "a model
professional", and repeatedly denied anything was amiss
on the human rights front in Honduras despite rising
concern in Congress about reports of disappearances and
killings by death squads.
In a 1982 letter to
The Economist magazine, he asserted it was "simply
untrue to state that death squads have made their
appearance in Honduras". He said much the same in
testimony before Congress at the time.
employees were told to cleanse their reports about
rights abuses, even as the military's role in the
killings and disappearances became widely known - and
reported by Honduran newspapers - within the country.
One exiled colonel living in Mexico denounced Alvarez
for creating a death squad: Negroponte denied the
Alvarez's excesses, the unprecedented
human rights abuses and the country's total alignment
with US plans eventually became too much for the
Honduran military itself. In a move that caught
Negroponte and Winter completely by surprise, his fellow
officers deposed the armed forces chief in a barracks
coup in 1984. Negroponte, whom the insurgents reportedly
wanted to have declared persona non grata, was back in
Washington within the year.
As more details
about Battalion 316 have come to light in the 20 years
since, Negroponte has continued to deny any knowledge of
its existence or activities. As late as 2001, when
President George W Bush nominated him as UN ambassador,
Negroponte insisted, "To this day, I do not believe that
death squads were operating in Honduras."
Negroponte's protests of innocence are simply
not credible to many observers, including his
predecessor in Tegucigalpa, who claims to have
personally briefed him about Alvarez and his murderous
plans. Rights groups have also pointed out he
successfully intervened with the army to gain the
release of at least two people who had been abducted,
suggesting that he must have known who was responsible.
Activists and some senators with whom he had
tangled over Honduras in the past had hoped his record
would have been closely scrutinized by the Senate when
he was nominated to the UN ambassadorship, but his
nomination was rushed to the floor for confirmation in
the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001
attacks on New York and the Pentagon, when the
administration argued there was no time for extended
hearings given the urgency of directing the US response
at the world body.