By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Al-Jazeera (English Service), the Doha based 24 hour news channel recently broadcast a documentary titled ‘Searching for Steels’ (originally broadcast in 2013). It is a brilliant piece of investigative journalism carried out based on classified US military documents released through WikiLeaks. It narrates the untold story of how the US administration trained a deadly sectarian para-military force of 17,000 men to fight those threatening America’s presence in Iraq. It was a decision that helped fuel a sectarian civil war that eventually ripped Iraq apart.
The investigation uncovers how Col. (Retd) James Steels, a counter terrorism expert was sent to Iraq in 2003 by the Pentagon. He was tasked with setting up a counter terrorism unit for the Iraqi government and to oversee sectarian police commando units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centers to obtain information from fighters. Composed of violent Shia militias, these commandos evolved into death squads.
Steels worked closely with General David Petreaus, Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I), in Iraq. He had come to know Petreaus, then a major based in El Salvador, in 1984. General David Petraeus is also implicated in the chain of command in this abuse of human rights.
By 2013, ten years after the invasion, 120,000 had died including 4,400 Americans as a result of the civil war brought about by this US trained paramilitary force. It divided the Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq as never before.
The film maker Maggie O’Kane has this to say:
“When the WikiLeaks documents came out in November 2010, there was one leak in particular that caught my attention. It referenced “Frago 242”, which was short for “Fragmentary Order 242” – a US military order instructing US soldiers to ignore Iraqi-on-Iraqi torture. Along with the team I work with, I found that the term “Frago 242” appeared more than a thousand times in the documents we examined. Having spent a lot of time covering the war in Iraq, we naturally wondered why this order was issued and what the story behind it was”.
“Our investigation uncovered how a retired US Colonel, James Steele, was overseeing Pentagon-backed death squads that tortured detainees for information on the armed groups. There were also references in the WikiLeaks files to a General Adnan Thabit, who was visiting the American embassy at the time”.
“The Iraq war is indicative of a very dysfunctional, brutal time. I hope this film will be a legacy that says: If you want to go to war, this is what war means. It means 14-year-old boys being hung up and tortured, it means men being turned on spits – that is your “counterinsurgency”. I feel it is important that this information comes out and I am shocked that we want to forget it so quickly.”
The documentary contains a video clip of an address to US troops and a statement by President Obama, which are reproduced below.
The video clip addressing US troops states; “It is harder to end a war than begin a war. Everything our troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting, all the dying, all the bleeding, the building, the partnering and the training; all of it has led to this moment of success”.
A statement issued a few months after entering the White House states;
“We’ve been through a dark and painful chapter of our history. Nothing will be gained in spending our time and energy laying blame for the past”.
In the light of documented events and video clips reported in the documentary ‘Searching for Steels’, it would be pertinent to examine the statements made by American bureaucrats visiting Sri Lanka and the advice given to Sri Lanka by US, since the end of LTTE terrorism.
Stephen J. Rapp, the United States ambassador at large for war crimes issues visiting the Northern Province with former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Michele J Sison in January 2014 in a Twitter message attaching a visual of the duo at St.Anthony’s grounds in Jaffna tweaked “St Anthony’s Ground – site of Jan 2009 killing of hundreds of families by army shelling #srilanka”
US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal on visit to Sri Lanka in February 2014 “We reiterated our commitment to Sri Lanka but we conveyed our concerns to senior government officials about the insufficient progress made in addressing justice and accountability. But as I have noted earlier, the patience of the international community is wearing thin with the pace of progress including with the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC. We are concerned about the worsening situation with respect to human rights including continued attacks against religious minorities, as well as the weakening of the rule of law and an increase of the levels of corruption and impunity”.
Secretary of State John Kerry on visit to Sri Lanka in May 2015 during a news conference in Colombo emphasized US was not seeking to meddle in Sri Lankan affairs. “Everything we are talking about, we are offering, not demanding, everything we have suggested is exactly that, a suggestion” he said.
Ambassador Samantha Powers on visit to Sri Lanka in November 2015 and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski on visit to Sri Lanka in July 2016 were two other American bureaucrats who had unsolicited advice for Sri Lanka on human rights, reconciliation, peaceful coexistence and accountability.
Present US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Atul Keshap on visit to Jaffna in August 2016 “I have visited Jaffna several times and have heard the painful memories of how the people of the Northern Province suffered so greatly during the many years of war. While truth telling, reconciliation and accountability are essential, these will not bring back the lives lost and the lives destroyed”.
Secretary John Kerry’s statement “everything we are talking about, we are offering, not demanding, everything we have suggested is exactly that, a suggestion” after the US sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at UNHRC in Geneva is an insult to all Sri Lankans other than to those who opted to co-sponsor the resolution.
All the sermons by visiting US bureaucrats and current US Ambassador to Sri Lanka contradicts their own President’s statement “We’ve been through a dark and painful chapter of our history. Nothing will be gained in spending our time and energy laying blame for the past”.
Of special interest is the US military order “Fragmentary Order 242” or “Frago 242”, instructions for US soldiers to ignore Iraqis torturing Iraqis. It is hypocritical to lecture Sri Lankans on its ethnic divide while fermenting Shia and Sunni Muslim divide in Iraq. It is criminal to demand the investigation of deaths shrouded in the fog of war while funding the formation, training and arming of sectarian para-military forces for the sole purpose of eliminating opponents of US presence in Iraq. There is no better justification for a credible investigation than the 120,000 deaths in the hands of US trained death squads which took place not during but after the invasion.
The US should either desist from meddling on issues such as human rights, truth telling, reconciliation etc. in Sri Lanka or else initiate a credible investigation to establish the origins of the sectarian war in Iraq which resulted in over 120,000 deaths within ten years. US cannot have it both ways. To continue such a duplicitous course is an affirmation of its moral bankruptcy.
It is not this writer’s contention, crimes committed by Sri Lankan armed forces must not be investigated and those guilty not be punished. It must be done. Not because we are told to do so by the international community, but as a duty to our fellow citizens who suffered injustices. However, a clear distinction need be made between civilian deaths in a war zone which is inevitable and individual crimes committed by soldiers in their personal capacity which are punishable.