BBC documentary reveals American colonel who trained Iraqi torturers

A new documentary from the BBC (in cooperation with The Guardian newspaper) has revealed direct ties between the torture practices and death squads of the Shia militia in Iraq and an American trainer, who also is alleged to have trained Salvadoran death squads. Retired Col. James Steele was dispatched to Iraq by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and served under/with General Petraeus in Iraq. This was not the first time Petraeus and Steele cooperated.  During El Salvador’s civil war, Steele trained  special police brigades that have been linked to death squads and torture, when Petraeus visited the country to learn counter-insurgency techniques

 Col. Steele’s history

Col. Steele’s military service goes back to Vietnam, where General George Patton Jr. called him “the best small-unit leader in my command.” After Vietnam, Col. Steele worked his way through the ranks, until El Salvador’s civil war heated up, with Steele being sent to train local “special Police brigades.” The units that Steele trained quickly became linked to accusations of torture and death squad activity. Former senior DEA agent Celerino Castillo knew Steele during his time in El Salvador, and has stated that when he heard that Steele had been sent to Iraq that the US was implementing the “Salvadoran option” to battle the insurgency.

Col. Steele was lauded for his work in El Salvador because the insurgency was stopped in its tracks. The cost to the people of El Salvador was more than 30,000 dead at the hands of the death squads. and many more tortured and abused. Col Steele was nominated to become one of the youngest full generals in the US military, but he was caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal, and was forced to retire early. The connections that Steele had from El Salvador included Dick Cheney. who turned to the retired officer to organize Panama’s new police force after the US threw out Noriega. In the periods between counter-insurgencies, Steele worked for corporations such as Enron and Buchanan as an “energy consultant.”.Buchanan has been accused of shady business practices in Liberia when Steele was with them, and Enron’s history speaks for itself.

“Salvadorization” of Iraq

In 2005, Peter Maas of the New York Times broke the story of former Col Steele’s return to counterinsurgency. The US invaders had been met with an insurgency,  rather than the “flowers and candy” promised by the Bush administration. The war was becoming increasingly unpopular, and deaths among Iraqis and American troops were escalating. Steele arrived to replace efforts to train police by western policemen and turn to a more militarized option.

The insurgents were being led by those who had served under Saddam Hussein and were mostly members of the Sunni minority, which has long acted as leaders in Iraq. The Americans therefore turned to members of the Shia majority to act as the counter-insurgent forces. Steele worked alongside Col James H. Coffman, who reported directly to General David Petraeus  on their progress in training the new special police brigades. Very quickly. the new Shia special police brigades gained a fearsome reputation in the areas they operated in, with accusations of torture surfacing almost immediately. When Peter Maas was invited by Steele to visit their operations to interview a Saudi insurgent, he reported walking into an office with blood dripping off the desk and hearing screams of pain and terror in the room next door. Col. Steele walked next door to where the screams were coming from. and the screams quickly ceased, so that Maas’s interview with the insurgent could proceed uninterrupted.

The leader of the special brigades was Adnan Thabit, an Iraqi officer who had been caught plotting to overthrow Saddam Hussein but had escaped with his life. Thabit has confirmed that Steele was the American trainer of his forces and knew exactly what he was up to. Thabit has also stated that although he disapproves of torture generally, that it is necessary to get “criminals to confess.”

Iraqi former general and government minister during Steele’s time in Iraq, Muntadher al-Samari, has also confirmed Steele’s knowledge of torture in Iraq. Al-Samari describes Steele seeing a prisoner suspended from the ceiling with bruising so severe that it would have been difficult to identify the individual. Describing Steele, al-Samari indicated his belief that Steele had been exposed to so much war and torture that he was incapable of “human feelings” and felt no empathy for the tortured prisoners he saw. After resigning his post from the gGovernment due to the abuse he witnessed, al-Samari was visited by Steele in Jordan. Steele questioned al-Samari about what he had witnessed and particularly asked if he had any physical proof of Steele’s actions such as documents or photos. Al-Samari now says he would be willing to testify about Steele’s knowledge of torture before a human rights court.

Torture was only a part of the special police brigade’s activity – they have also been accused in the deaths of thousands of opponents. At one point, 3,000 bodies were turning up in the streets of Iraq every month, with the majority attributed to the sectarian violence practiced by the Shia police brigades. So many bodies were being found that they were buried in local dumps. Most were not identifiable due to the extent of abuse and were buried with only tin cans to mark their locations.

 Bradley Manning and Wikileaks

The BBC and The Guardian have attributed the genesis of their investigation into the abuses to documents released by Wikileaks in 2010. As of this writing, Bradley Manning has confessed to supplying these documents to Wikileaks.  Manning has described the torture that he himself underwent as a result of revealing to the world the actions of the U.S. government involving torture and the deaths of innocent civilians. It is known that Steele reported directly not just to Petraeus, but wrote memos to Donald Rumsfeld, which were passed on to Dick Cheney and the White House. Meanwhile, retired Col. Steele lives quietly in Texas and earns large sums of money in return for speaking engagements on the subject of counter-insurgency.

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