Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but this is the tenth anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq. The invasion happened ten years ago, on March 20, 2003. Over the last few days British media have evaluated whether it was a just war, if it was fought the right way, how the civilian population fared, and much more.
Two days ago I watched a 50-minute documentary by The Guardian, produced in cooperation with BBC Arabic. Title: James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq. It reveals that General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were involved in egregious human rights abuses in Iraq. And all through a mystery man by the name of James Steele.
The thesis about Steele is not entirely new, but the involvement of Petraeus is. So here’s my summary.
First introduced to counterinsurgency during the Vietnam War, where he served in the Blackhorse Regiment from 1968-9, James Steele in 1984 became the U.S. Military Group Commander in El Salvador, which advised the Salvadoran Army on counterinsurgency strategies. Among others it trained paramilitary forces linked to the Army that were essentially death squads.
When El Salvador’s guerilla insurgency was defeated, David Petraeus, 33 years of age and a major, paid a visit to the country because he wanted to study what Washington considered a successful counterinsurgency operation. It appears that Steele and Petraeus met at that time. The documentary notes, “The young Petraeus even reportedly stayed at Steele’s house while there.”
Then came the 2003 Iraq war, where Major General Petraeus served as a commanding military officer. When the United States launched the war, it expected that Iraqis would uniformly greet the Americans as liberators and then gratefully establish a Western-style democracy. The U.S. Government hired fewer than ten retired American police officers to train 30,000 Iraqis, in a matter of 18 months, to become law-abiding policemen.
But that project proved to be unrealistic, especially since a Sunni insurgency became increasingly assertive.
In comes James Steele. He had entered Iraq in 2003 as a civilian, claiming to be an energy consultant. Steele had a close eye on the police training and on the situation on the ground more generally. Despite the fact that he was not in the military chain of command, he enjoyed great authority, working closely with Special Forces Colonel James Coffman, who in turn reported to General Petraeus.
When Iraq proved to be more unmanageable than originally thought, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided to support the U.S. presence with a counterinsurgency strategy. The plan was to arm the enemies of the insurgents and turn them into Special Police Commandos (SPCs) that would eventually form an integral part of the new Iraqi security forces. Enemies of the insurgents were easy to find. Many were Shiite militiamen from the Badr Brigades, which had a history of fighting Saddam Hussein. These men had revenge on their minds, for all the years that the Sunni dictator had oppressed their ethnic group.
The Iraqi Chief of Police, who had stood for a civic police force, was sent out to pasture. Then Steele moved to organize and train the SPCs. Unlike a regular police force, which is acculturated to following the rule of law, these units were trained to abide by military rules of engagement. In the long run hardly a recipe for establishing democratic relations between a government and its people.
Steele, together with Coffman, was put in charge of creating the commando battalions, which had been created under directive from General Petraeus. The two men then trained them to chase Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers. Under their guidance, the SPCs grew into a 5,000 strong force with headquarters in Baghdad’s Nisur Square, “the nerve center of a national network of detention centers.”
Steele had the run of the land. He sat in on meetings among the Iraqi ministers of defense and interior, who took his input seriously.
He had access to over a dozen secret prisons run by the Interior Ministry, in which people were tortured and killed. On the ground he moved among SPC soldiers, for example in Samarra, a city seventy miles northwest of Baghdad and a center for the Iraqi insurgency.
Here, the SPC battalions swept the city, pulling hundreds of men from their homes and into the detention center, where they were interrogated with torture. Techniques included raping detainees, hanging them upside down for hours, beating them with cables, and dislocating their joints. Numerous were killed. All this violated the Geneva Conventions, according to which prisoners of war are to be treated with respect and dignity.
New York Times reporter Peter Maass, author of “The Salvadorization of Iraq?”, interviewed Steele during the U.S. occupation. Maass says, “It was very clear that [Petraeus and Steele] were close to each other in terms of their command relationship and also in terms of their ideas and ideology about what needed to be done.” By July 2005 at the latest, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq was aware of the human rights abuses that the Commandos committed and reported them to Washington.
It may have been about that time when the SPCs adopted a new strategy: Pretending to detainees that they would be released, then killing them and dumping the bodies. For a while, the streets of Baghdad’s were sprinkled with corpses. Jerry Burke, who from 2003 to 2004 served as the chief policy adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, comments, “It became very obvious that this was criminal activity by the Special Commandos. They were eliminating their own opposition and terrorizing citizens from the Sunni community. We lost the support of a lot of Iraqi citizens, who became very cynical and very anti-American. Even the ones who were friendly with us couldn’t understand why we were allowing this to happen.”
Asked about such killings of Iraqis at a press conference, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld claimed ignorance. That was a subterfuge. On September 15, 2005, Steele had sent him a memo informing him of the death squad activities of SPC units.
Also in September, Petraeus and Steele left Iraq. The SPCs would grow from 5,000 to 17,000, expanding their reign of terror.
The sobering documentary is worth watching. Among others it provides valuable background for understanding the Sunni mass demonstrations that rocked the Iraqi government in recent months.
As for the Iraq war, the film reveals from yet another angle that it was at best a giant mistake and at worst a crime.