Gen Petraeus and the torture units: the other story of the Iraq Surge
James Steele, veteran of US dirty wars in South America, also implicated in treatment of Sunnis
TODAY'S Guardian will not make pleasant reading in Washington. For the first time, a major mainstream media outlet has alleged that leading American politicians and military figures, including General David Petraeus, the former commander of US forces in Iraq, were directly involved in a systematic campaign of torture and atrocity carried out against Sunni insurgents by Shia paramilitary units connected to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.
Its findings go far beyond the notorious "enhanced interrogations" of Abu Ghraib. An accompanying documentary produced jointly by The Guardian and the BBC Arabic service describes how Shia paramilitary units such as the feared Special Police Commandos hung prisoners upside down and beat them with cables, tortured them with electricity, and killed terrorist suspects with electric drills.
The documentary contains interviews with former high-ranking military officers, including Adnan Thabit, the former head of the Special Police Commandos, who claims that such activities were well-known to the American officers who trained his unit.
Much of the investigation focuses on the crucial role of the enigmatic US military advisor Colonel James Steele in training and overseeing these activities. The former head of the US military mission to El Salvador in the 1980s, Steele once trained the Salvadoran armed forces, whose paramilitary units used very similar tactics against left-wing guerrillas and their civilian supporters.
Steele's connections to the Special Police Commandos are not entirely revelatory. As far back as 2005, Newsweek reported that Pentagon officials were considering a new policy in Iraq called the 'Salvador option' in response to the Sunni insurgency. Within a few weeks, reporters began to report kidnappings and killings of Iraqi men by armed men driving Toyota Land Cruisers. Many of the victims subsequently turned up in rubbish dumps or the Baghdad morgue bearing marks of savage torture.
In May 2005, a New York Times reporter described meeting James Steele at one of Adnan Thabit's interrogation centres, where he saw and heard men being tortured. In the documentary Steele comes over as a sinister eminence grise in the 'Salvadorisation' of Iraq.
According to General Munthader al Samari, a former member of Iraq Ministry of the Interior until 2005, "The best description for him [Steele] is that he lacks human feeling. I mean, the number of wars he's witnessed, and the various methods of torture that must have been committed, whether in Iraq or elsewhere, somehow their hearts have died."
Steele was one of various Reagan-era officials from the Central America 'dirty wars' who showed up in Baghdad, such as former Ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte, who served as US Ambassador to Iraq in 2004-5.
The presence of such men was an indication of the panic prevailing in the Bush administration at the strength of an insurgency that was pushing the most powerful military nation in history to the brink of strategic defeat.
In the semi-official "happy ending" narrative of the Iraq war, the US military, under the sage leadership of Gen Petraeus and Gen Ray Odierno, recovered from the disastrous beginning to the occupation, and prioritised "hearts and minds" counter-insurgency over the blunt instrument of military force during the period known as "The Surge".
These methods included the use of financial inducements to coax Sunni sheikhs into turning against their former allies in al-Qaeda and its affiliates, thereby bringing about an "acceptable level of violence" that enabled the US military to make a dignified withdrawal on its own terms.
In his speech welcoming US troops back to Fort Bragg in 2011, Barack Obama hailed this "extraordinary achievement". But the Guardian investigation casts light on the 'stick' - rather than the 'carrot' - that made this achievement possible: a world of secret prisons, torture centres and mass killings carried out by units that were trained and equipped by the US military.
In the past, US politicians and military officers, including Petraeus, have disclaimed knowledge of such events according to the old CIA adage of "plausible deniability". Today that deniability no longer seems so plausible.
The behaviour of the Special Police Commandos cannot be attributed to Shia militias pursuing a sectarian vendetta under the rubric of the Interior Ministry – though that was clearly part of it.
Both US Special Forces and the British SAS also carried out extrajudicial killings of "terrorists" in the same period. In 2008, the Daily Telegraph reported that more than 3,500 insurgents had been "taken off the streets of Baghdad" by the SAS, and hundreds of them had been killed.
Such actions belong to a well-established tradition of strategic terror that can be traced back to Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Vietnam and French Algeria.
It is not a tradition that liberal democracies like to boast about in public, but the Guardian investigation provides further evidence that it was once again brought into play so that the Bush administration could stave off a disaster of its own making.