Pentagon investigating link between US military and torture centres in Iraq
Defense Department says 'it will take time' to respond to 15-month investigation by BBC Arabic and the Guardian
Ewen MacAskill in Washington and Mona Mahmood
7 March 2013
The Pentagon is investigating allegations linking the US military to human rights abuses in Iraq by police commando units who operated a network of detention and torture centres.
A 15-month investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic,  published on Wednesday, disclosed that the US sent a veteran of the "dirty wars" in Central America to oversee Iraqi commando units involved in some of the worst acts of torture during the American-led occupation.
The allegations, made by US and Iraqi witnesses, implicate US advisers for the first time in these human rights abuses. It is also the first time that the then US commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, has been linked through an adviser to the abuses.
Colonel Jack Miller, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Guardian on Thursday: "Obviously we have seen the reports and we are currently looking into the situation."
In an email, he added: "As you know the issue surrounding accusation of abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees is a complex one that is full of history and emotion. It will take time to work a thorough response."
The Pentagon argument is that it needs time because of the legal implications and also because those named in the documentary no longer serve in the military.
The relatively muted response in the US contrasted with that in Iraq. In Samarra, one of the centres of the Sunni insurgency against US-led forces and where Iraqis are alleged to have been tortured in a library, residents greeted a showing of the documentary on Wednesday evening.
Waleed Khalid said thousands of people gathered in the city for anti-government protests were excited to watch part of the documentary and there was a plan to set up big screens to show the whole film on Friday.
He said: "We as people of Samara know the whole story as many of the people in Samarra were detainees and sustained great deal of torture and some of them we found their bodies at the forensic department.
"But it is so important for us that the world would hear our story and reconsider these violations against the detainees which amount to crimes against humanity."
The documentary names Colonel James Steele, a retired special forces veteran then aged 58, who was sent to Iraq by then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to help organise paramilitaries in an attempt to quell the Sunni insurgency. Another special adviser, retired Colonel James Coffman, worked alongside Steele and reported directly to Petraeus.
Requests to key members of the US Senate armed services committee, which could investigate the allegations, for comment were declined or ignored.
The investigation was prompted by the release by WikiLeaks of hundreds of documents in October 2010 alleging that Iraqi government forces engaged in torture and systematic abuse of detainees.
Human Rights Watch at the time called for a US government investigation into whether its own forces breached international law by transferring thousands of Iraqi detainees from US custody in spite of a clear risk of torture.
Erin Evers, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday: "This information provides further evidence of the problematic relationship between the US government and the Iraqi ministry of the interior which includes secret prisons. The US should investigate US complicity with or responsibility for human rights abuses committed by Iraqi security forces."
Noah Weisbord, an assistant professor at the Florida International University college of law, who helped draft additions to the statute of the International Criminal Court and was a law clerk to the chief prosecutor of the ICC in the Hague, in an email, said US soldiers could theoretically be tried by the ICC even though the US is not a signatory. But such cases would have to be referred by the UN security council and, given that the US has a veto on the council, this makes it very improbable.
Countries that are signatories to the ICC such as Canada or the UK could not arrest US citizens and send them to the Hague.
Weisbord added: "There are, however, a number of fora where US soldiers can be tried for torture. For example, some states have national laws that give their courts universal jurisdiction or other types of robust extraterritorial jurisdiction. This is unrelated to ICC membership. Jurisdiction stems from their domestic laws."
Reprieve legal director Kat Craig said: "This latest exposé of human rights abuses shows that torture is endemic to US foreign policy; these are considered and deliberate acts, not only sanctioned but developed by the highest echelons of US security services. It is time to raise the legal and political cost of torture and send an unequivocal message that it has no place in this day and age. We must increase public scrutiny and accountability for state agents, both US and UK, and bring to justice those who carried out, sanctioned or conceived of these gross violations of human rights. Without criminal prosecutions – in this case of Petreaus and many other senior officials – alongside meaningful public inquiries this cycle will never be broken."
The UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, called for the UN Human Rights Committee to investigate.  On Tuesday, he had presented a report to the council in Geneva urging accountability for Bush-era crimes. "To the list of international crimes committed by that administration must now be added the evidence uncovered by the Guardian and the BBC," Emmerson said.
He added: "As long ago as 2006, during its last periodic review by the UN Human Rights Committee, the US was heavily criticised for adopting a policy of impunity towards the officials who committed these grave and systematic crimes. It is due for its next periodic review in the autumn of this year, and I have every confidence that the committee will expect to see the results of a full investigation into these new allegations. This would have the objective of bringing those responsible, including the politicians who authorised this conduct, to justice."