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Dhaka Tribune

Washington’s allies in Iraq disturbingly similar to its foes

Update : 20 Dec 2015, 07:55 PM

It was one of the most shocking events in one of the most brutal periods in Iraq’s history. In late 2005, two years after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, US soldiers raided a police building in Baghdad and found 168 prisoners in horrific conditions.

Many were malnourished. Some had been beaten.

The discovery of the secret prison exposed a world of kidnappings and assassinations. Behind these operations was an unofficial Interior Ministry organisation called the Special Investigations Directorate, according to US and Iraqi security officials at the time.

The body was run by militia commanders from the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iran, Shi’ite political movement that today plays a major role in Baghdad’s war against Islamic State, the Sunni militant group.

Washington pressured the Iraqi government to investigate the prison. But the findings of Baghdad’s investigation – a probe derided by some of its own committee members at the time as a whitewash – were never released.

The US military conducted its own investigation. But rather than publish its findings, it chose to lobby Iraqi officials in quiet for fear of damaging Iraq’s fragile political setup, according to several current and former US military officials and diplomats.

Both reports remain unpublished. Reuters has reviewed them, as well as other US documents from the past decade.

The documents show how Washington, seeking to defeat Sunni jihadists and stabilise Iraq, has consistently overlooked excesses by Shi’ite militias sponsored by the Iraqi government. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both worked with Badr and its powerful leader, Hadi al-Amiri, whom many Sunnis continue to accuse of human rights abuses.

In allowing the Shi’ite militias to run amok against their Sunni foes, Washington has fueled the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that is tearing Iraq apart.

The decade-old US investigation of the secret prison implicates officials and political groups in a wave of sectarian killings that helped ignite a civil war. It also draws worrying parallels to the US government’s muted response today to alleged abuses committed in the name of fighting Islamic State.

Those accused of running the secret prison or of helping cover up its existence include the current head of the Iraqi judiciary, Midhat Mahmoud, Transport Minister, Bayan Jabr, and a long revered Badr commander popularly referred to as Engineer Ahmed.

“Special Investigations Directorate personnel illegally detained, tortured and murdered Iraqi citizens,” the US report states. “Iraqi government officials failed to take action to stop the crimes.”

The report says US investigators faced a “lack of government cooperation, reluctance of witnesses to come forward and the perception of official complicity.”

Judge Mahmoud declined to comment for this story. A former colleague close to him said Mahmoud knew about the secret prison’s existence but did not know what went on there: “He cannot be held responsible for every judge’s behaviour.”

Transport Minister Jabr did not respond to Reuters’ queries. Jabr has previously stated publicly that no wrongdoing occurred at the prison.

US officials acknowledge the role that Shi’ite militias such as Badr play in fighting Islamic State. As the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, the militias helped Baghdad defend the country against the Sunni jihadist group when Iraqi military and police divisions deserted en masse in 2014.

Since then, the militias have continued to attack Islamic State, which has declared a Caliphate across swathes of Iraq and Syria. Islamic State, also known as Daesh, routinely executes citizens who speak against it, kidnaps people, buys and sells women and children, and uses rape as a weapon.

American ambassador Stuart Jones told Iraqi state television in April this year “that the Hashid Shaabi is part of the Iraqi fighting forces which are defeating Daesh today.”

But Sunnis in areas freed from Islamic State control say the Shi’ite militias have been guilty of their own excesses, including looting, abductions and murder. At least 718 Sunnis in Salahuddin province have been abducted by fighters from Shi’ite militias since April 2015, according to several security officers, a provincial council member and tribal leaders. Only 289 have been freed, most after paying ransoms.

Some former and current US officials say Washington needs to stop downplaying abuses by the Shi’ite militias.

Robert Ford, a former US diplomat who served as the US embassy’s political officer between 2004 and 2006, believes the US government’s decision not to punish those behind the secret prison set a damaging precedent. “A few people were transferred elsewhere,” he said. “That’s not a punishment. You are supposed to scare them into not doing it.”

The US embassy in Iraq and the State Department’s new counter-terrorism envoy, Brett McGurk, did not respond to requests for comment. 

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