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'US-trained death squads' organized torture sites across Iraq

Published time: April 08, 2013 23:25
Edited time: April 09, 2013 06:17
AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye

AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye

After one year in Iraq the US government secretly enlisted retired Special Forces operatives to train Shia militia in the art of torture and other war crimes that fueled the Iraqi civil war, according to a new report.

Just over year into the Iraq War a desperate US government secretly organized and funded small militia groups to set up torture camps across the Middle Eastern country under the direction of a retired US Special Forces commander, according to a new report.

James Steele, who came out of retirement in 2003 after guiding US-backed commandos in El Salvador in the 1980s, was deployed to Iraq as an “energy consultant” not long after the invasion began. A member of General David Petraeus’ inner circle, Steele quietly trained a Iraqi paramilitary force numbering in the thousands. With the help of Col. James Coffman, another Special Forces operative, he freely dispatched Shia militias to torture Saddam Hussein’s Sunni soldiers in order to learn the details of the insurgency.

The subject is the focus of a new documentary by The Guardian in collaboration with BBC Arabic entitled “James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq,” which is viewable online. The Pentagon has denied participation in any war crimes but, upon being questioned, said the military would “investigate” the matter. Steele has rebuffed interview requests from his home in Texas.

This is one of the great untold stories of the Iraq War, how just over a year after the invasion, the United States funded a sectarian police commando force that set up a network of torture centers to fight the [Sunni] insurgency,” the film begins.

This is also the story of James Steele, the veteran of America’s dirty war in El Salvador. He was in charge of the US advisers who trained notorious Salvadorian paramilitary units to fight left-wing guerrillas. In the course of that civil war, 75,000 people died, and over a million people became refugees.”

Steele’s role in the Middle East has been blamed with fueling the Iraqi civil war between Sunnis and Shias, the peak of which saw 3,000 people killed every month. At the behest of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Steele and Coffman committed various human rights violations but were never implicated by subordinates, in part because they never tortured prisoners themselves.

They worked hand in hand,” Gen. Muntadher al-Samari, who worked with Steele and Coffman for over a year, told The Guardian in March. “I never saw them apart in the 40 or 50 times I saw them inside the detention centers. They knew everything that was going on there…the torture, the most horrible kinds of torture.”

The new report is the first time Gen. Petraeus has been mentioned in connection with US-sanctioned torture sites in Iraq. Both Steele and Coffman worked directly under Petraeus during the counter-insurgency in the initial years of the Iraq conflict.

The Guardian/BBC Arabic report describes how, during that time, each torture site was under the bureaucratic command of its own interrogation committee.

Each one was made up of an intelligence officer and eight interrogators,” Samari said. “This committee will use all means of torture to make the detainees confess, like using electricity or hanging him upside down, pulling out their nails, and beating them on sensitive parts.”

The hour-long documentary about Steele is the result of a 15-month investigation by the British media giants sparked by the release of the same classified military documents leaked by Private Bradley Manning. Manning, 25, could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted of exposing the torture routines.

Maggie O’Kane, a multimedia editor and director of investigations at The Guardian, told Democracy Now why the report on Steele needed to be released.

When the WikiLeaks documents came out in December of 2011…there was a reference to Frago 242, which was a US military order instructing US soldiers to ignore Iraqi-on-Iraqi torture,” she said. “This incidence, this Frago 242, came up over 1,000 times in the documents as we looked at it and we wondered why this order was issued and what was the story behind it…The Wikileaks documents, because they were the actual documents and what the State Department was sending back to Washington about what was going on, that this was a real treasure trove that we should explore.”