Baghdad -- I see them almost every day roaring through the streets - black-masked young men standing up in the backs of pickup trucks firing their automatic weapons into the air. Sometimes the insignia on the side of the truck is a wolf, sometimes a lion, sometimes a scorpion. Iraq's commando units.
Iraq's new security forces are supposedly the salvation of the country, the answer to the terrorist bombs and constant state of insecurity. But when I hear the gunshots approach and watch the pickup trucks race through traffic, I feel cold and afraid. I have listened too many times to the stories of the men these security forces have detained and interrogated.
"They electrocuted me so much that my body was lifted up and thrown down, it was such strong electricity," says Isam (not his real name), a young Iraqi who was picked up by the Scorpion Brigade on the streets of Baghdad, imprisoned and tortured in several different detention centres for more than two months, then finally released without charge.
Others have shared the fact of their torture but are too afraid to go into detail. Still others will never tell their story except through the marks left on their corpses in the pictures their families receive at the morgue.
I read the other day that the Iraqi government is downplaying the recent report about torture by Iraqi security forces. As U.S. government leaders said following the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, the message is that this is a case of a few bad apples, and it will soon be under control.
Friends, this is just not true. The torture is widespread, and the only reason the world has not heard more about it is that the survivors are terrified to speak out. I have heard too many personal accounts to believe otherwise.
In addition, large international human rights organizations documented this torture more than a year ago. (See Human Rights Watch's report of January 2005.)
From Isam's perspective, here is the reality. (I am sorry, but I can only share a few excerpts from his story. His fear of repercussions runs too deep.) Here is what I can share.
At a Scorpion Brigade detention centre, the interrogators made Isam sit on the ground and told him to admit to specific crimes: that he had beheaded Iraqi police, killed Iraqi National Guard soldiers and raped women. He denied these charges.
They clipped an electric wire to his right wrist and connected the other end to his left big toe. They yelled at him, threatened him that they would make him publicly confess on Iraqi TV and that he would die. They whipped him with cables on his back and arms.
At some point during the first or second interrogation, his interrogators told him that if he did not confess to the crimes they would bring in his wife and rape her in front of him.
At another centre, the cell had no fan, no window, no water and no toilet. Isam noticed that many of the detainees were sick. One had heart disease, one had asthma and some lost consciousness. They were packed into a hot room and felt there was no air to breathe. They had no way to perform their prayers. They did not have access to the Quran.
At yet another centre, detainees were jammed together so tightly that each man's chest touched the back of the man in front of him. They were not allowed to lie down or sleep. If anyone nodded off, he would get beaten. Isam said that some of his fellow detainees admitted to crimes they did not commit, because of the torture they experienced.
Over time, Isam's body was severely damaged. He had many bruises and sores. He believes that it was for this reason, as well as the fact that there was no evidence against him, that the authorities finally brought him to be tried in court. The judge released him after telling him not to commit any more crimes, although Isam denied having committed any crimes at all.
It is not only the Iraqi government that must bear culpability for this horror. The U.S. government, which supplies trainers and advisers for Iraqi security forces, is responsible as well. For example, James Steele, one of the U.S. military's experts on counter-insurgency, is an adviser to Adnan Thavit, leader of the Special Police Commandos, known as one of the most brutal of Iraq's new forces. In his previous life, Steele led U.S. Special Forces in El Salvador in the 1980s, aiding a repressive government's military that killed thousands of peasants, students and activists.
Steve Casteel, a former top official in the Drug Enforcement Administration ,who spent years in Latin America, is the senior U.S. adviser in the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which has operational control over the commandos. Funding and training for the commando groups come from the Iraqi government, as all of them fall at least nominally under the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defense. And from which country does a great deal of the funding for the Iraqi government come?
How can we act to help end this horror?
Shelia Provencher is a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams.