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
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
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
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
“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.”