This week the Guardian and BBC Arabic published an exclusive report detailing the findings of a fifteen-month long investigation of Pentagon involvement in Iraqi torture centers. The investigation followed the publication by WikiLeaks of hundreds of secret military files, which revealed US complicity in torturing Iraqi prisoners.
In 2004, Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, appointed Colonel James Steel, a 58-year old veteran of America’s ‘dirty wars’ in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s, to train and manage police commando units established to fight Iraq’s growing Sunni insurgency. These units, known as the Special Police Commando (SPC), drew their membership largely from Shia militias eager for vengeance against supporters of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Regime.
Together with Colonel James H. Coffman, another special adviser who was also appointed by the Pentagon, Steele managed a number of detention centers supported by millions of dollars of US military funding. Under the direct supervision of Steele and Coffman, these centers soon became hotbeds for torture committed by Iraqi Shia commandos.
At the time, media reports frequently decried the practice of torture, but were quickly denied by the Pentagon – as evidenced by clips shown in the Guardian/BBC documentary
Both American and Iraqi witnesses have come forward with fresh allegations, revealing specific details about how the detention centers worked and how the systematic torture was carried out. The use of torture in Iraq became the weapon of choice for Shia SPC death squads against the Sunni community – both insurgents and civilians. This practice no doubt hastened the country’s descent into full-blown civil war, which at its peak caused 3,000 deaths per month. These groundbreaking allegations are also the first to explicitly link former CIA Director General David Petraeus and his advisers to the torture scandals
That torture took place under the knowing gaze of US military advisers once again highlights the many immoral and illegal acts in which the US government was complicit.
It is certainly unnerving that Rumsfeld could appoint a veteran formerly responsible for training and funding Central American paramilitaries – infamous for torture and human rights abuses – without any opposition or qualms over the legality of such a move.
The Pentagon has reacted to the allegations raised in the Guardian/BBC investigation by saying that ‘it will take time’ to properly respond to the claims due to ‘legal implications.’ Neither Steele nor Coffman have responded to any questions from the Guardian and BBC Arabic regarding the report’s claims.
The use of torture in Iraq had destructive consequences for the country’s future, and teaches us one thing: sectarian warfare was not the ‘natural’ result of Iraq’s diverse population. Rather, it was the product of divide-and-rule practices, whether carried out by the country’s despotic ruler or by invading foreign armies seeking to impose their own brand of governance.
Both Latin America and the Middle East have suffered from the devastating effects of US military intervention and ‘dirty war’ practices. Latin America has emerged stronger, independent and more united since its experiences of the 1970s and 80s. One can only hope the same will one day be the case for Iraq and the Middle East.