Patrick Cockburn: Echoes of El Salvador in tales of US-approved death squads

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The Iraqi documents released by Wikileaks produce significantly more detail on US actions in the war in Iraq , but do they produce anything that we did not know already?

The Pentagon will huff and puff with rage as it did over the Wikileaks release of US military documents about Afghanistan, when it took the contradictory position that there was little new in what has been leaked, but important sources of intelligence had somehow still been compromised.

The leaks are important because they prove much of what was previously only suspected but never admitted by the US army or explained in detail. It was obvious from 2004 that US forces almost always ignored cases of torture by Iraqi government forces, but this is now shown to have been official policy. Of particular interest to Iraqis, when Wikileaks releases the rest of its hoard of documents, will be to see if there is any sign of how far US forces were involved in death squad activities from 2004.

From the summer of 2004 Iraq slipped into a sectarian civil war of great savagery as al-Qa'ida launched attacks on the Shia who increasingly dominated the government. From late in 2004 Interior Ministry troops trained by the Americans were taking part in savage raids on Sunni or suspected Baathist districts. People prominent in Saddam Hussein's regime were arrested and disappeared for few days until their tortured bodies were dumped beside the roads.

Iraqi leaders whispered that the Americans were involved in the training of what were in fact death squads in official guise. It was said that US actions were modelled on counter-insurgency methods pioneered in El Salvador by US-trained Salvadoran government units.

It was no secret that torture of prisoners had become the norm in Iraqi government prisons as it established its own security services from 2004. Men who were clearly the victims of torture were often put on television where they would confess to murder, torture and rape. But after a time it was noticed that many of those whom they claimed to have killed were still alive.

The Sunni community at this time were terrified of mass sweeps by the US forces, sometimes accompanied by Iraqi government units, in which all young men of military age were arrested. Tribal elders would often rush to the American to demand that the prisoners not be handed over to the Iraqi army or police who were likely to torture or murder them. The power drill was a favourite measure of torture. It is clear that the US military knew all about this.

From the end of 2007 the war began to change as the Americans began to appear as the defenders of the Sunni community. The US military offensives against al-Qa'ida and the Mehdi Army Shiah militia were accompanied by a rash of assassinations. Again it would be interesting to know more detail about how far the US military was involved in these killings, particularly against the followers of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

There were a series of interconnected conflicts going on in in Iraq during the American occupation in 2004-9. One that the seldom made headlines involved a series of tit-for-tat killings and kidnappings against each other by the Americans and Iranians. This reached its peak in 2007 when the Americans tried to seize Iranian intelligence leaders visiting Kurdistan and US soldiers were killed in an abortive raid in Kerbala. The capture of British naval personnel by Iranian Revolutionary Guards may have been part of this shadowy conflict.

Information about Iraq leaked, like that about Afghanistan, should come with a health warning. The Americans were often told by Iraqis, low level agents or high level ministers, what they supposed the Americans wanted to hear, notably that an Iranian hand was behind many anti-American actions. Much of this is likely to be nonsense.

Information given to the Americans by Afghan intelligence implicating Pakistan and ISI military intelligence in aiding the Taliban was obviously concocted. It is not that the Pakistan military do not help the Taliban but they do so subtly and with care to make sure their involvement cannot be traced. Iraqi intelligence passed to the Americans is likely to be equally biased.

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