Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is Past Prologue?

By William Fisher

The publication of a motherlode of secret field reports from the Iraq War are shining a bright light on heretofore unknown or underreported
suspicions about the power of private security contractors and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by their fellow Iraqis, often with their U.S. military counterparts “turning a blind eye.”

The release of the 392,832 documents by Wikileaks – the same website responsible for the recent release of 77,000 secret reports covering six years of the Afghanistan War – drew an immediate response from the Pentagon and efforts by unfriendly nations to paint the American military in the most gruesome possible light.

Geoff Morrell, the Defense Department (DOD) press secretary, strongly condemned both WikiLeaks and the release of the Iraq documents.

“We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies,” he said.

Iran’s Press TV declared, “Whistleblower website Wikileaks has released documents suggesting that the Pentagon instructed US-led forces to ‘secretly’ torture detainees in Iraq.”

The document release also unleashed a flood of bickering among competing Iraqi politicians. For example, a senior member of the Iraqiya bloc led by former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi called for an investigation into possible connections between torture operations in Iraqi prisons and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The March 7 parliamentary elections produced a stalemate between Allawi and al-Maliki, and both are still chasing the prime minister’s job long after the election.

The Wikileaks disclosures fall into five categories: reliance on private contractors; the so-called “surge,” the addition of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to work with willing Iraqis; the deaths of Iraqi civilians — killed mostly by other Iraqis, but also by the American military; a litany of prisoner abuse by Iraqis —from which Americans sometimes turned a blind eye – even more lurid than the infamous photographs of torture from Abu Ghraib prison in 2004; and the “aggressive” intervention of Iran’s military providing “weapons, training and sanctuary” to Shiite combatants.

The Wikileaks documents are sparse on information about mistreatment of prisoners in American-run detention facilities, but heavy on the chilling details of abuse of Iraqis by Iraq’s own army and police.

During the period covered by the Wikileaks documents, at least six prisoners died in Iraqi custody, most of them in recent years. Hundreds of reports referenced beatings, burnings and lashings. Such treatment appeared to be normal to the Iraqis.

According to The New York Times, ”In one case, Americans suspected Iraqi Army officers of cutting off a detainee’s fingers and burning him with acid. Two other cases produced accounts of the executions of bound detainees. And while some abuse cases were investigated by the Americans, most noted in the archive seemed to have been ignored, with the equivalent of an institutional shrug: soldiers told their officers and asked the Iraqis to investigate.”

U.S. military orders said that if American personnel were not directly involved in prisoner abuse, American soldiers need not take any action. This order caused U.S. forces to look the other way in cases of the abuse of Iraqis by Iraqis.

When Americans discovered and reported abuse, Iraqis frequently failed to act. One report said a police chief refused to file charges “as long as the abuse produced no marks.” Another police chief told military inspectors that his officers engaged in abuse “and supported it as a method of conducting investigations.”

The Wikileak documents also show that Americans sometimes used the threat of Iraqi brutality to persuade prisoners to cooperate with interrogators.

It was not until later in the war that some of the worst examples of Iraqi abuse came to light. For example, in August 2009, an Iraqi police commando unit reported that a detainee committed suicide in its custody, but an autopsy conducted in the presence of an American “found bruises and burns on the detainee’s body as well as visible injuries to the head, arm, torso, legs, and neck.” The report stated that the police “have reportedly begun an investigation.”

And in December, 12 Iraqi soldiers, including an intelligence officer, were
caught on video in Tal Afar shooting to death a prisoner whose hands were tied, The Times reports.

The Saddam Hussein regime was exceptionally brutal. Iraqis used cables, metal rods, wooden poles and live electrical wires to hurt prisoners. One report on a detainee cited “bruises in a roughly boot shape from upper to lower back.” In another, a detainee is said to have bruises from beatings with a board. Another detainee suffered blurred vision, bleeding in his ears and nose, bruises on his back, arms and legs and hemorrhaging in his eyes.”

Wikileaks reports that, while the Americans told the local Iraqi Army commander, no inquiry was begun because Americans were not involved.

It was not unusual, however, for American soldiers to intervene. One American soldier heard screams in a prison cell and found two badly dehydrated detainees with bruises on their bodies. He ordered them out of Iraqi custody.

In August 2006, Wikileaks documents show, an American sergeant in Ramadi walked into an Iraqi military police station and found an Iraqi lieutenant using an electrical cable to slash the bottom of a detainee’s feet. The American stopped him, but later he found the same Iraqi officer whipping a detainee’s back. One beaten detainee said in 2005 that “when the Marines finally took him, he was treated very well, and he was thankful and happy to see them.”

The Wikileaks documents may increase the scrutiny of the role of private contractors, seemingly well-publicized via the travails of companies such as Blackwater (now known as Xe Services), which is accused of opening fire on unarmed civilians in a crowded main square in Baghdad and killing 17 of them.

But the Wikileaks disclosures, while reporting little that was unknown, paints a far more detailed picture of the military sea-change that defined America’s involvement in Iraq. The New York Times says, “The early days of the Iraq war, with all its Wild West chaos, ushered in the era of the private contractor, wearing no uniform but fighting and dying in battle, gathering and disseminating intelligence and killing presumed insurgents.”

The behavior of private security contractors in Iraq is already having serious effects on use of these same assets in Afghanistan. Abuses, including civilian deaths, have driven the Afghan government to attempt to ban most outside contractors entirely.

Numerous reports have forecast a substantial growth in the use of security contractors in Iraq as American forces shrink. A July report by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, a panel established by Congress, estimated that the State Department alone would need more than double the number of contractors it had protecting the American Embassy and consulates in Iraq.

There are still more contractors than members of the military serving in Afghanistan.

WikiLeaks is an international organization that publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of otherwise unavailable documents while preserving the anonymity of sources. Its website was launched in 2006.

The organization has described itself as having been founded by Chinese dissidents, as well as journalists, mathematicians, and start-up company technologists from the U.S., Taiwan, Europe, Australia, and South Africa. Newspaper articles and The New Yorker magazine (June 7, 2010) describe Julian Assange, an Australian journalist and Internet activist, as its director.