Sunday, March 10, 2013

TV: The War Crimes Documentary

Over footage of tombstones, a hooded Iraqi prisoner, and other suffering, we hear US President Barack Obama speaking in that start-stop manner he's become infamous for, "It's harder to end a war than begin one.  Everything that American troops have done in Iraq -- all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering -- all of it has led to this moment of success."  Right at the start, you know James Steele: America's Mystery Man In Iraq  is a documentary about exposing the lies.


The documentary is a joint-production by BBC Arabic and The Guardian newspaper (the newspaper has filed several reports on the investigation -- most prominent of the filings would be the report by Mona Mahmood, Maggie O'Kane, Chavala Madlena and Teresa Smith).  It's created an international stir with coverage from Al-Akhbar, The Iraq TimesThe Voice of Russia, Press TV, Prensa Latina, Gulf News, The Hindu, HurriyetDeutsche Presse-Agentur among others.

One place where there's been little interest in the documentary or the revelations it contains?  The United States. 

That's especially surprising when you consider that Friday found Shaun Waterman (Washington Times) noting that the Pentagon has launched an examination into the allegations.   That may have been the only newspaper coverage the documentary or the revelations has received. 

Dearbhla Molloy, Narrator:  It's ten years since America invaded Iraq, ten years and over 120,000 dead, among them over 4,400 American soldiers.  This documentary tells one of the great untold stories of the Iraq War, how the US administration funded a deadly, sectarian, para-military force to fight those threatening the American military presence.  It was a decision that helped fuel a sectarian civil war that ripped Iraq apart.  At it's height, 3 years later, 3,000 bodies a month were showing up on the streets of Iraq.

The US policy, the special explains, was to set up Special Police Commandos, a counter-insurgency force.  These were actually  death squads made up of Shi'ite militias.   Leaving out the death squad aspect, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is shown bragging to the US Congress about this move.  His boss, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is seen publicly denying the existence of the death squads.

It was a ridiculous denial because Rumsfeld was receiving updates from James Steele.


Dearbhla Molloy:  This is also the story of the man the Pentagon sent in to organize and train those para-military squads. He's a veteran of America's so-called dirty wars stretching back to Vietnam and El Salvador. This man was so important to the Pentagon that the then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw fit to forward his personal memos to the President and the Vice President. 

Rumsfeld's contact with Steele makes the denial ridiculous.

The timing of the denial is ridiculous for other reasons as well.

For example, not noted in the documentary but, December 3, 2005, the editorial board of The Washington Post  called out that denial, "[. . ] Mr. Rumsfeld now pretends not even to know about the government death squads. [. . .] This despite the facts that U.S. troops uncovered the clandestine prison and that officials from the Army, FBI, Justice Department and U.S. Embassy are participating in an investigation."

When the US media refused to cover The Downing Street Memo in May 2005, the attitude was that the memo might itself be new but that its premise had been explored before.  Eight years later, the US media may think they can make that assertion again.

New York Times Sunday Magazine journalist Peter Maass: I was staying at the base in Samarra, an American base.  And I overheard soldiers, American soldiers at this base, talking about having watched prisoners be kind of strung up like animals after a hunt over a bar, having watched prisoners be actually tortured.

Peter Maass wrote an article on the Salvador option being implemented in Iraq for the May 1, 2005 issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine.  It is a long article that has a surprising number of typos when you grasp that the magazine has enough employees to make corrections.

The other big surprise, reading it after watching Maass in the special is that Maas' key contribution may in fact be when he talks about how close Steele and General David Petraeus are.  That's not in his article.  There's a lot in his article, but that's not in it.

Furthermore, Maass' article isn't a report.  It's a lengthy column, written in first person.  It's also one that takes a measure of delight at counter-insurgency and abuse.  Maybe those who slam and attack films shouldn't write pieces where they take delight in seeing Iraqi prisoners on TV 'confessing' to assorted crimes?

He so loves the program, Maass, that he really can't address the fact that everyone featured in it was tortured except for the mentally ill -- and, yes, the mentally ill were part of that popular program and they would say whatever they were asked to say (without being tortured).

But torture is what has taken place.

Prisoner 1: We would be blindfolded and handcuffed behind our backs.  Then they would beat us with shovels and pipes.  We'd be tied to a spit or we'd be hung from the ceiling by our hands and our shoulders would be dislocated.

Prisoner 2: They electrocuted me.  They hung me from the ceiling.  They were pulling at my ears with pliers, stamping on my head, asking me about my wife, saying they would bring her here.

In archival footage used in the special, Petraeus babbles on about "the brotherhood" among the commandos (the torturers).  His admiration for them is clearly intense.  Since Col. James Coffman reported directly to Petraeus and since Coffman worked side-by-side partnering with James Steele,  Petraeus knew exactly what was going on.

Jerry Burke (Chief Policy Adviser to the Ministry of the Interior, 2003-2004):  He had to have known.  These things were discussed openly -- whether it was at staff meetings or before or after staff meetings in general conversation.  Pretty much the whole world in Iraq knew that the Police Commandos were the Badr Brigade.  And he must have known about the death squad activities.  Again, it was common knowledge across Baghdad.

The documents Bradley Manning released to WikiLeaks makes clear that soldiers were reporting up the chain what they were seeing.

Dearbhla Molloy:  The top US military knew from soldiers' daily logs that torture was going on inside detention centers.  They even issued a new, official military order in June 2004.  It was called FRAGO 242.  It directed US troops to note, but not investigate, torture of Iraqis by Iraqis -- unless ordered to take action by headquarters.

When members of the Oregon National Guard stumbled upon a detention center, they tried to protect the tortured but, Captain Jarrell Southall explained, the person in charge of the detention center made a call to someone at US military headquarters, "right after he made that phone call,  the order came that we were to stand down."  They were to leave and leave the tortured prisoners with their torturers.  Even worse, Southall explains that when they got back to the military base, "The commander called us all in there and told us that what we saw didn't happen and to forget about it."

If the documentary has a short coming, it's probably in failing to explore the CIA ties to what was going on.  Steele is CIA-connected and Petraeus ended up Director of the CIA for something other than military knowledge. In fact, the CIA is all over the British documentary but never explored. There's Ahmed Chalabi who's mentioned in a fleeting sentence. There's the memo Steele writes and Rumsfeld forwards which contains the name of a CIA informant who spent time in California before moving back to Iraq.

Another problem may be that people don't have the information needed to grasp these are not past incidents.

Dearbhla Molloy:  One man who survived Samarra and Nissar Square says that the police commandos lied about the fate of some of his fellow detainees.

Prisoner 3: They started releasing some of the detainees. They were claiming that these detainees were returned to their families.  They were killing them and dumping their bodies on the streets of Baghdad.

It's disturbing that detainees were 'released' to be killed to keep the torture secret.  It's disturbing that this may still be happening.

 Since December 21st, protests have been going on in Iraq.  With regards to prisons and detention centers, there are still charges of torture.  Women and girls are said to be tortured and raped.  Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister and chief thug of Iraq, tried to end the protests last month by doing a heavily cover 'release' of prisoners.  But thing is, the women released?

They never made it home.  As the 'releases' have continued, the provinces have asked for a list of names.  Guess what? Nouri's committee has refused to release a list of names of those released.

Is anyone being released?

In the last weeks, there's been a new trend in Iraq.  Corpses.  Corpses on the streets.  Now there's never been a week when corpses weren't dumped on the streets of Iraq.  But it had dropped to one or two from time to time.  Now it's much more than that.  And another difference is that, as with the period of the ethnic cleansing/civil war, women are turning up each week among the corpses.

That's one way what's reported in the documentary applies to Iraq today.

Another way is that the US government continues to support the puppet government despite all its abuses.  Billions of taxpayer dollars still go into propping up Nouri and keeping him in control.  Referring to the death squad era, Peter Maass says in the documentary, "The clear priority at that time in Iraq was to not have this incredibly shaky provisional government defeated by the insurgency.  That was priority number one -- to which every other priority democracy, human rights, etc. was subordinate."  Sounds a lot like the priority today, the same priority that led the Obama administration to ignore the 2010 election turnout and instead insist that second place Nouri get a second term.   That was more important than the voters, the vote, the country's Constitution or the democratic process.  In other words, very little has changed from the 'past' the documentary covers.

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