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Documentary Exposes US Role in Iraq Sectarian Conflict

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Maggie O’Kane, Executive Producer, tells the story revealed by the Guardian documentary about the role of Col. James Steele in supporting torture, death squads and brutal sectarian conflict during the height of the Iraq war.

Maggie O’Kane, Executive Producer, tells the story revealed by the Guardian documentary about the role of Col. James Steele in supporting torture, death squads and brutal sectarian conflict during the height of the Iraq war. Steel’s reports went directly to Rumsfeld and Cheney.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Now joining us to talk about this investigative piece is the executive producer and a member of the investigative journalist team, Maggie O’Kane. She joins us from London. She’s the multimedia editor of investigations at The Guardian. As a former correspondent, she’s covered the world’s major conflicts over the last decade. She’s a former British journalist of the year and a former foreign correspondent of the year—awards given by British journalists.

Thanks very much for joining us, Maggie.


JAY: So it seems to me there’s many—the film’s very rich, and there’s many things we could talk about here, but people will watch the film, and much of the detail they will get from that, from watching the film. But one of the things that emerges for me is that in the United States especially, the narrative here is that the primary role of American forces after overthrowing Saddam Hussein was to try to prevent civil war, not add fuel to it. And at the very least, it seems to me, your investigation makes the case that through the activities of Colonel Steele, fuel was added, if not more than that.

O’KANE: Well, I think what our investigation is saying—and I think it shows quite clearly that a decision was made, not by retired colonel Steele, but very much by the political hierarchy in the United States, by Donald Rumsfeld, by General Petraeus, that actually in order to combat the insurgency that was rising up unexpectedly against the Americans, in order to combat that insurgency, which was mainly Sunni, you would—they decided to arm what was essentially almost comprehensively—sorry—they decided to arm was essentially a Shia force called the special police commandos.

Now, when you make a decision that you’re going to take a sectarian force in a country that has been rife with sectarian conflict and you decide to pour arms and ammunition and support into a group that is clearly on one side, then you’re opening up a very, very dangerous tinderbox. Now, whether or not that was the intention or whether or not that was a byproduct that the United States didn’t think about, then their main aim, as we understand it, was to stop the attacks on American soldiers at whatever the price.

So I would not say that we could eliminate the possibility that there would have been a civil war in Iraq anyway, but certainly the actions in arming a sectarian force by Rumsfeld using people like Steele and General Petraeus had catastrophic effects on Iraqi society. And at the height of the civil war in 2006, you know, you had 3,000 bodies a month turning up a month from sectarian killings. It unleashed a hell, really, on the country.

JAY: And just to back—a little bit of context. This takes—the Sunni attacks on American soldiers and a lot of, you could say, the conditions that gave rise to the Americans wanting Shia forces to go and attack Sunni, if you back up one step, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, my understanding was there was a real attempt by Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, to have elections, to have a kind of normalization and move forward, and the Americans de-Ba’athicised brutally, throwing all the Sunnis out of any position they were in, held off elections for, what, more than two years. So it’s not just that these forces started fighting each other without some kind of context.

O’KANE: Well, I think the most important context in terms of the decisions that were taken was, as you say, to basically sack the army and the police force. So it was anyone who was a member of the Ba’ath Party. And if we make comparisons, say, you know, in 1989 with the fall of communism, everybody was in the Communist Party. If you wanted your kids to go to school, they had to be in the Communist Party. It was exactly the same in Iraq. If you wanted to make any progress in the civil service, in education, in health, within any of the state structures, you had to be a member of the Ba’ath Party.

So by deciding to throw out all of those people who were army and police and military, and, you know, most of them ordinary, decent Iraqis trying to survive within the system that they were under, you created a complete void. And into that void—it was almost too late. By the time the Americans had discovered that they had created this void, they suddenly had to fill it with a tough sectarian force who would take on the Sunnis who were attacking the American military there.

O’KANE: —who were taking on the American military there.

So we’re talking about did they know this was inevitable. I certainly have no evidence to suggest that.

Was it recognized that this was a dangerous strategy to take? And we know from speaking to high-ranking members of the Iraqi government that they warned General Petraeus, that they warned the American establishment or the American political leadership that if you continued to arm a sectarian Shia force, if you handed it over to the Ministry of the Interior, which at that time was being run by somebody who had a pathological hatred of Sunnis—Solagh [j{[email protected]], had lost twelve members of his own family, who’d been executed by Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni. So this man who has been handed a force that was like a—that was going to explode, which essentially it did. And there were warnings, and they were given directly to General Petraeus. They were also given to the American political establishment. And they were ignored.

JAY: Right. Now, again, the narrative here is the Sunnis were brutal and violent and chopping people’s heads off and such. And we got very little reporting here of the torture and the brutality of some of the Shia forces against the Sunni. But your investigation shows that Colonel Steele was right in the midst of the use of this torture and that memos of Steele were going directly to Rumsfeld. So it wasn’t like this wasn’t known at the most senior levels.

O’KANE: But it was—in a way it was almost more than that. I mean, retired colonel Steele’s job was to oversee some of the torture and detention centers. We believe that there was 13 that existed, which were secret torture centers, in which detainees were round up. Many of them had nothing to do with the insurgency.

And there was basically a torture processing going on as a way to achieve human intelligence that then could be used by the Americans and by the special police commandos to take on the insurgency. So in a way it was quite organized. So the knowledge—we believe, and we believe we’ve established in our documentary, that Colonel Kaufmann, who reported directly to General Petraeus, and retired colonel Steele were both fully aware of the torture that was going on, and on occasion handed over lists of people that they wanted picked up and tortured for information.

JAY: Now, torture is a war crime. Colonel Steele, I can see from your film, has actually been given awards, not arrested. I mean, doesn’t your film lead to the conclusion that there needs to be accountability not just for Colonel Steele but people in the chain of command that were involved in this kind of torture?

O’KANE: I mean, our film is about laying out the facts. And the difficulty has been that there’s always been a sort of distance put between the American military in this area and what the Iraqis were—special commandos were carrying out. There was a sort of deniability by distance. What we sought to do is to use a piece of investigative journalism to establish the relationships, to hear from people who were inside these torture and detention centers about what their relationship was with the American military, what specifically was the role of retired colonel Steele and of Colonel Kaufmann. And then, as I see it, as journalists our job was to lay out the facts. You know.

Then there needs to be questions asked. I mean, one of the questions I would like to ask is why the American mainstream media—with all due respect to yourself—but, you know, why is there a reluctance to follow through on the evidence that has been presented in this investigation, which has taken 17 months? And, you know, maybe people want to forget about it. They’re not really questions for me. My job and the job of the team that I work with is to get to the information and to get eyewitness accounts. And I believe in that film we have laid out a pretty substantial case that there is a case to answer.

JAY: Yeah. We’ll go ask some of those people. I mean, at The Real News we haven’t had problem following up on this, and we do regularly. But I take your point: most of the media doesn’t. Partly they took their cue from President Obama, who said, let’s look forward, not backwards, and wouldn’t allow any investigation into illegal activities. And with all the evidence of torture in various investigations, there’s been no pursuit or prosecution.

O’KANE: Well, I think one of the things we felt was completely, you know, in a way fascinating, and at times also very, very depressing, was that, you know, Colonel Steele began his work in El Salvador in 1984, gathering human intelligence there, which essentially is the same process. So we feel it’s important that you kind of—.

Actually, having been a foreign correspondent and a war correspondent, you find that this is—there’s a whole language of euphemism which is about counterinsurgency, about gathering human intelligence. You know, we are talking about torture. We are talking about potentially igniting a civil war. And we really have to learn these lessons, because there’s been huge, huge suffering in Iraq. And I say that as somebody who has made 17 or 18 films there. And I feel that the legacy should be what we learn from these mistakes.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Maggie.

O’KANE: Thank you very much for having me.

JAY: And if you’re watching this not on the Real News site, you should come to the Real News site, ’cause we’re going to play the whole film. And there’s—also, if you go to the Guardian site, you will find a lot of other backup material that’s accompanying their display of the film.

So thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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