The Pentagon sent a pair of retired colonels, one of them a veteran of the Central American "dirty wars," to oversee Iraqi commando units that set up secret torture centers where horrific abuses against prisoners, some of them children, occurred.
The shocking details of US involvement in Iraqi torture have been revealed following a 15-month BBC Arabic/Guardian investigation, the results of which were aired in a 51-minute documentary film. The investigation was launched after American soldier Bradley Manning released classified US military documents detailing hundreds of incidents in which US troops encountered tortured detainees in secret prisons run by police commandos across Iraq to the whistleblower website Wikileaks. Manning, who was himself subjected to techniques that the United Nations and International Red Cross have described as torture, faces up to 20 years' imprisonment for leaking the files, some of which detail US war crimes and atrocities.
According to the investigation, Bush-era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hand-picked Col. James Steele, a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran, to travel to Iraq and assist in organizing sectarian paramilitary commando forces tasked with crushing the Sunni insurgents who were violently resisting the US-led occupation. Once the Pentagon allowed Shia militias to join state security forces, the special police commando (SPC) ranks swelled with Shia fighters from groups such as the Badr Brigades. Some of these groups received weapons and cash from Iran, which had a keen interest in thwarting the US-led mission in Iraq and in aiding their fellow Shiites.
Assisting Col. Steele in his mission was retired Col. James H. Coffman, who reported directly to David Petraeus, the disgraced former CIA chief who was then an army general in charge of organizing and training the post-Saddam Iraqi security forces. Col. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003-2005 and again in 2006, reported directly to Sec. Rumsfeld.
According to American and Iraqi witnesses interviewed for the BBC Arabic/Guardian documentary, the two retired colonels and Gen.Petraeus witnessed or knew about the horrific torture of Iraqi detainees in SPC custody.
"They knew everything that was going on there," Iraqi Gen. Muntadher al-Samari, who worked with Steele and Coffman to organize the commandos, said of the two men. Al-Samari claimed the Americans oversaw "the most horrible kinds of torture" committed by units set up in secret prisons.
"Each one was made up of an intelligence officer and eight interrogators," al-Samari told the BBC Arabic/Guardian investigation. "This committee will use all means of torture to make the detainee confess, like using electricity or hanging him upside down, pulling out their nails and beating them on sensitive parts."
"I remember one 14-year-old who was... tied up with his legs above his head," the general continued. "His whole body was blue because of the impact of the cables with which he had been beaten."
While there is no evidence that the Americans participated in the torture, they allegedly witnessed some of it while supervising interrogations.
Photographer Gilles Peress was on assignment with the New York Times in Iraq when he encountered Col. Steele in one of the secret torture prisons. "We were in a room... interviewing Steele and I'm looking around, I see blood everywhere," Peress told the BBC Arabic/Guardian investigation.
Journalist Peter Maas was present at the same interrogation center with Peress. "While this interview was going on with a Saudi jihadi with Jim Steele also in the room, there were these terrible screams, somebody shouting 'Allah! Allah! Allah!,'" Maas recalled. "These were the screams of pain and terror."
A US official speaking for Gen. Petraeus told the Guardian that the general "did learn of allegations of Iraqi forces torturing detainees" during his tenure in Iraq, but that he "shared (the) information immediately with the US military chain of command, the US ambassador in Baghdad... and the relevant Iraqi leaders."
But Iraqi Gen. Adnan Thabit, who headed the special commandos, refutes claims that the Americans were unaware of detainee torture.
"The Americans knew about everything I did; they knew what was going on in the interrogations and they knew the detainees," Gen. Thabit told the investigation. "Even some of the intelligence about the detainees came to us from them-- they are lying."
Further evidence that Gen. Petraeus was unconcerned about detainee torture came in September 2005, when Jabr al-Solagh, who was closely associated with the brutal Badr Brigades, was appointed as Iraq's interior minister. Al-Solagh's tenure was characterized by torture and brutality, and under his watch the SPCs evolved into death squads. According to the Guardian, high-ranking Iraqi officials warned Gen. Petraeus of the grisly consequences of appointing al-Solagh, but their warnings were ignored.
US backing of sectarian death squads ultimately fueled a civil war that, at its height, saw 3,000 Iraqis killed each month.
Col. Steele had plenty of experience dealing with death squads by the time he arrived in Iraq. The Vietnam veteran headed a team of US advisers that trained Salvadoran security forces in counterinsurgency tactics during El Salvador's civil war in the 1970s and '80s. Among the atrocities committed by US-backed Salvadoran military and paramilitary forces, many of them trained, armed and funded by the United States, during the early 1980s were the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the mass killing of mourners at his funeral in 1980, the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of four American church women later that year, the massacre of more than 900 Mayan villagers at El Mozote in 1981 and the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989. In 1986, Petraeus visited El Salvador and became a staunch supporter of brutal methods employed in the fight against leftist insurgents.