The New York Times today failed to accurately describe the Iraqi prison and judiciary systems while reporting that "the American-run detention system in Iraq has improved, even its critics say."
The Times' story is based on a guided tour provided to one of its reporters, Alyssa Rubin, who marveled at detainees sitting in the sunshine reading the Koran, playing volleyball and making yogurt. But these scenes appear to be Pentagon window-dressing for a system which is deeply flawed.
It is unclear who Rubin's unnamed "human rights critics" are, but they become part of the window-dressing, and are sure to be cited by the Pentagon again. Yet her rosy picture is contradicted by the same unnamed advocates who point out to Rubin that there are "underlying legal problems with the detentions themselves and the lack of legal rights afforded to detainees."
In these "improved" US-run facilities, the vast majority of detainees are rounded up on little or no evidence, have no rights to lawyers nor any basis to challenge their detention. These are the same policies followed by the British in Malaysia and Kenya, by the French in Algeria, by the apartheid regime in South Africa, and by the US in South Vietnam and Central America. On a larger scale, they are consistent with the inner city policing strategies that result in America now holding twenty percent of the world's inmates, most of them young, black and brown.
In these "improved" conditions, the Times goes on: 85-90 percent of the detainees will never stand trial, their internment will last 333 days on average, 80 percent of them are Sunni youth, and all are sent through "psychological assessments," described by one former detainee as waging "psychological war on you." Fully two-thirds are not considered by their captors as "imperative security risks," the United Nations criterion for internment without trial.
Those are the "improved" facilities, a public relations response to the Abu Ghraib scandal of three years ago. In the facilities controlled by the Interior Ministry, some 25,000 other detainees face severe and secret daily abuses. Human rights groups are reduced to lobbying the Americans not to send any more detainees to the Iraqi facilities.
The major flaw in this model is the sharp distinction drawn between American detention facilities, like Camp Bucca, and Iraqi prisons which are widely known to be more abusive and violent. The two systems, however, operate on a spectrum of treatment, and both are funded and advised by the Americans.
Between $22-25 billion in US tax dollars have been spent on the overall Iraqi prison system, including American advisers and trainers within Baghdad's Interior Ministry. In 2007, there were 90 US advisers assigned to the Interior Ministry. Some of the training is outsourced to private contractors like DynCorp. The Baker-Hamilton Study Group reported last year that Iraqi police "routinely engage in sectarian violence, including the unnecessary detention, torture and targeted execution of Sunni Arab civilians." Even the White House has acknowledged de facto death squad "target lists" bypassing the normal chain of Iraqi command.
Not all US officials accept the brutality that goes with the counterinsurgency model. At the Amman airport a couple of years ago, I met an American contractor who was sickened by the numerous bodies of Sunnis he had seen executed with shots to the head, their faces covered with lye.
But there is a strategic hand behind these delegated, shadowy, "off the books" policies of terror and suppression. A top counterinsurgency specialist, Dr. David Kilkullen, advocated a "global Phoenix program" in 2004, referring to the US-sponsored operation in South Vietnam. Not long after, Kilkullen replaced the loaded term "Phoenix" from his vocabulary, and began referring to South Vietnam's "revolutionary development" program instead. Kilkullen was the "chief adviser" to Gen. David Petraeus on counterinsurgency strategy, according to Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post.
In a bolder moment, Kilkullen once described the psychological assessment techniques employed by the Pentagon on detainees as "armed social science", using anthropologists to design strategies to "exploit the physical and mental vulnerabilities of detainees."
The election-year illusion is that American troops must slog on in Iraq while training, advising and supporting Iraqis who are "standing up." The truth is that US policies have contracted out to, sheltered, or turned a blind eye, to the malignant growth of a sectarian gulag.
Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.
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