Investigative reporter James Gordon Meek broke an important story this week: He revealed that U.S.-backed forces in Iraq are committing the same type of horrific war crimes — wanton killings of prisoners, beheadings, torture — as the Islamic State fighters on the other side of the front line.
Meek’s report, broadcast by ABC News and based on photos and cell phone videos that Iraqi fighters had proudly shared on social media, shows the Humvees and M4A1 assault rifles that the U.S. government has supplied in abundance to Iraq’s armed forces. In its effort to push the Islamic State out of Iraq, the U.S. is providing Baghdad with nearly $1 billion a year in weapons, in addition to training by several thousand American advisers.
U.S. and Iraqi officials professed surprise at what is happening, and told ABC that investigations would be launched to get to the bottom of it. If this sounds familiar in a “Casablanca” way — gambling in the casino, stop the presses — it should. Back in 2005, when Facebook was a curiousity used by just a few thousand students and Instagram was years away from being invented, the sorts of abuses that Meek recently found on social media sites were well underway.
Back then, I visited Samarra, a contested town in the heart of what was known as the Sunni Triangle, and wrote about the abuses I saw while accompanying Iraqi and U.S. forces on joint raids. I saw beatings, witnessed a mock execution, and heard, inside an Iraqi detention center, the terrible screams of a man being tortured. I received the same sorts of reactions that greeted Meek’s story: U.S. and Iraqi officials expressed surprise and promised to punish any wrongdoers.
That’s because torture, rather than being an aberration, was embedded in a strategy that was described, at the time, as the Salvadorization of Iraq—the use of dirty-war tactics to defeat an insurgency. It is more than a footnote of history that the origins of this policy appear to date to 2004, when the effort to train and equip Iraqi forces got underway in earnest under the leadership of Gen. David Petraeus, who went on to command all U.S. forces in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, then became director of the CIA, then resigned andpleaded guilty to disclosing a trove of highly-classified information to his lover and biographer, Paula Broadwell, and lying to the FBI about it.
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