Pentagon Requests $1.8 Training Program To Combat Sectarianism It Fomented

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces wear fake beards after playing the part of ISIS militants during a training exercise in Baghdad, Iraq.(AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces wear fake beards after playing the part of ISIS militants during a training exercise in Baghdad, Iraq.(AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The release of the Pentagon’s 2018 budget request late last month foreshadows a sordid future for both Iraq and Syria, even after Daesh (ISIS) is eliminated as a threat. Warning of “instability” in post-Daesh Iraq and Syria, the request warns that the risk of creating an environment that “exacerbates sectarian divisions, contributes to extremism, and allows outside actors to destabilize the country” is considerably high.

But if Congress supplies $1.8 billion to fund the training and equipping of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and “vetted” members of the armed Syrian opposition for three more years, the Pentagon argues that those risks will lessen substantially. The lion’s share of these funds – approximately $1.3 billion – would be used exclusively for building up the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS).

However, what the request fails to mention is that the same forces they seek to train in both Syria and Iraq have been major contributors to instability and sectarianism themselves. For instance, armed opposition members in Syria are essentially Wahhabists who have called for the genocide of other religious sects – including other Muslim Shiites and moderate Sunnis – and have been found to routinely murder and torture innocent Syrian civilians.

The situation is equally troubling in Iraq. Iraqi Security Forces have been caught violating human rights on numerous occasions by kidnapping and torturing innocent civilians – occasionally bragging that they were schooled in a variety of torture techniques by U.S. forces.

In the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the U.S. pulled former Special Forces operative James Steele out of retirement to train Iraqi paramilitary forces numbering in the thousands. Though labeled an “energy consultant” by the U.S. government at the time, Steele had primary expertise in the art of torture, as he first made a name for himself training U.S.-backed paramilitary forces in the 1980s in El Salvador.

These forces went on to torture and terrorize that nation’s population for over a decade. One of the El Salvadorian groups trained by Steele, the Atlacatl Battalion, massacred more than 700 men, women and children in what became one of the worst mass killings in modern Latin American history.

Steele’s training of paramilitary militias in Iraq has had similar results, fueling the sectarianism that now defines post-invasion Iraq. Steele instructed the forces he trained – composed largely of Shi’ites loyal to the U.S.-backed Iraqi government – to set up torture camps throughout the country where they were told to primarily target Sunnis and other sects, particularly those who had been loyal to Saddam Hussein’s regime. The U.S. government also issued an order – known as Frago 242 – that told U.S. soldiers to ignore Iraqi-on-Iraqi torture in order to allow sectarianism to spiral out of control.

Human Rights Watch noted that detainees of these U.S. trained forces were “hung upside-down, deprived of air, kicked, whipped, beaten, given electric shocks and sodomized” after conducting extensive interviews with the victims. The Iraqi Security Forces have continued to act in the same way over the years, with a group of Iraqi soldiers recently caught on film torturing and killing Mosul civilians.

Technically, such gross human rights violations would prevent the Pentagon from funding Iraqi Security Forces under the Leahy Law, which prohibits the State Department and Department of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights.

However, the Pentagon recently made it clear that even members of Iraqi military groups blacklisted under the Leahy Law would continue to receive assistance, despite its illegality. Last Wednesday, U.S. military spokesman Colonel Joe Scrocca said that while the U.S. did blacklist the Emergency Response Division (ERD) of the Iraqi Security Forces, the ban “does not prevent the U.S. from working with the ERD, as we do with other elements of the Iraqi security forces, to help ensure a coordinated effort among different elements of the ISF in the fight to defeat ISIS in Mosul.”

This latest budget request, if approved, would continue to cement the U.S.’ role as an occupying force that would feed the very sectarianism and instability it claims to fight against.

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