By Moazzam Begg and Karen Jayes

Introduction: The use of chemical weapons by coalition forces, an illegal invasion, torture at Abu Ghraib and other black sites, beheadings by Iraqi forces and impunity for war crimes ushered in by the pronouncements of the US President are major contributing factors to the insanity that is Iraq today. In order to understand its present, and diffuse a potentially catastrophic future, it is necessary to examine the recent past and, crucially, learn from it.  

War crimes we endorse: Pursuing IS with impunity has created monsters

The images were too disturbing for even the tabloids to publish: a video of an Iraqi soldier dancing with two severed heads, allegedly those of “jihadists”, on a Mosul street. He is smiling broadly as his legs move to the beat of music in the background.

In another brazen example of impunity, another Iraqi army soldier boasts of his beheadings, recording his actions and disseminating the videos on social media. He has decapitated over 50 victims, he says. Falah Aziz and his comrades beat bound and gagged men with batons, suffocate them to death with their bare hands and slaughter their captives with a knife.

Other videos released by Iraqi army and militia operatives depict beatings, systematic torture and sexual violence. All this debauchery is justified in the name of destroying ISIS and “fighting terror”, a repetitive and oft-repeated US trope. The sheer brutality depicted in these videos and pictures is unbearable to watch. So most people don’t.

On the other hand, perpetrators of these war crimes feel confident enough to film and disseminate their grisly recordings because they’re fighting an equally soulless opponent against whom America and its allies have declared endless war.

One journalist who had been embedded with Iraqi forces last year had to escape with his life after he went public with horrors he witnessed. Ali Arkady was brought in to photograph and record the apparent Sunni and Shia cooperation in the fight against IS. As commanders began to trust him, however, he became privy to extreme torture, sexual abuse and murders committed by the Iraqi Army’s elite forces – the US trained heroes who had come to liberate the oppressed. Arkady now lives in hiding after receiving death threats.

This ‘War on Terror’ paradigm has become familiar to us. The barbarity of (IS) has been eclipsed only by that of US coalition-backed troops. In an attempt to reclaim the moral high ground, the UN calls for Iraq to investigate, but stops short of holding its US sponsors accountable.

The pressure to “kill the terrorists” continues in a toxic global climate. On the ground in Iraq, a living hell materialises where a man’s worth is measured by the brutality by which he can kill, and the number of people that are his victims or who are silent witnesses to it. From the lessons of history, we know that this killing becomes indiscriminate.

But this depraved situation did not emerge out of a vacuum. This kind of violence is taught and learned. To understand and defuse it, it is necessary to examine its recent history.  

Facebook Live video: Shocking war crimes in Mosul and the culture of impunity by Moazzam Begg

Use of chemical weapons supported by US and UK is in Iraq’s history

The US coalition’s approach to Iraq is beset by hypocrisy. Before the US coalition turned on Saddam Hussein in 1990, British, French and German companies, with the knowledge and support of the United States, supplied Iraq with chemical weapons including mustard gas. The coalition also supported him in his war against revolutionary Iran between 1980 and 1988. During this war over one million people were killed.

Britain and US have been bombing Iraq non-stop since 1991 – this makes it a 26-year-old transcontinental bombing campaign, which is the longest in human history. Between 1990 – 1991, during what is commonly referred to as the ‘Persian Gulf War’ coalition forces dropped bombs and fired artillery shells containing depleted uranium on Iraq which some have called the “most toxic war in history.”

This has resulted in congenital birth defects and the development of neuroblastoma in children. In some areas, almost half the population will develop cancer. A WHO report in 2013 stated birth defects had risen to a “crisis” right across Iraqi society as a result of the use of uranium by Britain and the US, not only during 1990-1991, but also more recently.

The US and Britain bombed Iraq, then prevented crucial medical supplies from reaching the country through 13 years of sanctions and embargo which at a conservative estimate by UNICEF claimed the lives of 500,000 children. US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright blithely said when questioned about this mass murder at the time, that the price was “worth it”, betraying a startling disregard for the sanctity of human life.

An illegal ground invasion by US and UK in 2003

It is ironic then given the history of their support and supply of chemical weapons in Iraq that Bush and Blair claimed their countries needed to embark on a ground invasion of Iraq in 2003 to destroy “weapons of mass destruction”.

This we all now know was a lie, since in 2004, 1,625 US and UN inspectors released a report after searching nearly 1,700 sites in Iraq at a cost of over $1bn which found no evidence of such weapons as they had been destroyed.

The same could be said for the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, announced by Colin Powell in a speech to the UN in 2003 also to justify the US-UK ground invasion, and based on “evidence” gathered from the torture of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi.

These links, the CIA later found, did not exist. Instead, Powell managed to mention the name of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi 21 times, gathering the relatively unknown al-Qaeda figure greater prominence in Iraq, which helped lay the groundwork for ISIS.

The initial invasion of Iraq saw coalition forces fighting both Sunni, Baathist and Shia groups in the name of “bringing freedom to the people of Iraq”. Soon, however, it became clear that the coalition chose sides after igniting sectarian conflict.

A culture of impunity developed. The active support or tacit approval of Iraqi government or aligned forces saw coalition troops either involve themselves in human rights violations or offer silent approval of Iraqi government or aligned militia’s war crimes, which included kidnap, torture, rape, and extortion. This continued even after the official end of the occupation.

An atmosphere of torture and killing cultivated by occupation forces

In the wake of the pre-emptive invasion, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, alarmed at the growing insurgency and frustrated at the lack of intelligence coming out of Iraq, ordered top military officials to “Gitmo-ise” Iraq.

Under the auspices of a 17-person “tiger team”, military intelligence officers were placed in charge of prisons in Iraq and interrogations were centralised at Abu Ghraib.

Abu Ghraib had been the centre of Saddam Hussein’s torture programme. Now the abuses were set to continue, this time under US watch. Inhumane measures such as isolation, abuse by dogs and sexual humiliation became the norm.

Former US Army Lieutenant General of coalition forces in Iraq Ricardo Sanchez wrote in his memoir: “The civilian leaders at the highest levels of our government … unleashed the hounds of Hell.”

Read more: The Iraq war was born and raised in torture

The world was soon to see the devastating results. In 2004, CBS News published the now well known photographs of prisoners at Abu Ghraib – some were hooded and connected to wires, others were naked and leashed like dogs.

The scandal, however, was minimised. Despite the orders clearly having come from the top echelons of the Bush administration, only a handful of lower enlisted soldiers were prosecuted.

It was explained away as an ‘isolated incident’ even though the emergence of a further 2000 images in 2009 (which were blocked by Obama for fear of harming the US mission in Iraq), were evidence that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the torture was “essentially official policy. It was widespread at different facilities under different commanders”.

Over time, further atrocities came to light. US war crimes included the Mukaradeeb wedding massacre in 2004 where 42 civilians were killed and generals refused to apologise, the 2005 Haditha mass executions where US Marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians.

Perhaps most shocking was the gang-rape by five American soldiers and the killing of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi and the murder of her family in 2006 – including her 6 year-old sister at Mahmudiyya. For this, the men responsible received life sentences but the culture of abuse by the US military remained unaddressed, their inhumanity starkly evident. Appealing his conviction one of the perpetrators told the US courts, “I did not think of the Iraqis as humans” after being exposed to the extreme violence of the conflict.

Three days after this brutal incident, US soldiers raided a house north of the city of Balad. Iraqi troops accused them of deliberately shooting and killing eleven civilians, among them five children and four women, including a 6-month old baby.

And in 2007, four Blackwater operatives – private military contractors operating in the shady mercenary world that has gone hand-in-hand with US operations in Iraq – opened fire on and killed 14 civilians in Nisour Square. During their trial in 2013, one of the men told how they had seen the conflict through the prism of mainstream media lies, viewing the murder as “payback for 9/11”. No link between Iraqis and 9/11 has ever been proved.

The actions of British forces have also been called into question. Several cases entered the British legal system where Iraqi civilians had alleged that British soldiers had tortured, beaten and sexually assaulted them between 2003 and 2008. Key amongst these was the case of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian who died after “lack of food and water, heat, exhaustion, fear, previous injuries and the hooding and stress positions [were] used by British troops”.

The rise of ISIS in the dark vacuum after Fallujah

US military operations severely affected civilians. During the two sieges of Fallujah in 2003 and 2004, media was accused of drastically under-reporting the US atrocities; at least 6000 Iraqis were killed, and one-third of the city was destroyed.

Several independent news sites, however, reported how the United States gave the citizens of Fallujah two choices prior to the second siege: leave the city or risk dying as “enemy insurgents”.

Local journalists and residents told how Americans entered houses and killed people because they couldn’t understand and therefore obey their orders, which were in English. Accounts of people being shot by Americans as they attempted to swim across the Euphrates to escape the siege emerged.

None of the relief teams from the Iraqi Red Crescent in Baghdad were allowed into Fallujah three weeks after the invasion and food and water stores were cut off or destroyed.

During the “battle” for Fallujah, the US army used white phosphorous, a chemical that can burn through the flesh, right through to the bone, and which reignites days after release. The actions were justified by a Pentagon spokesperson, chillingly, as a “shake and bake” mission. There are also reports of the use of uranium in Fallujah, resulting in birth defects neural tube, cardiac, and skeletal malformations, and cancer.

Ironically, as the US and Britain created a lie based on torture evidence linking Saddam to al-Qaeda where there was none, the invasion of Iraq and its occupation by coalition forces, particularly the atrocities in Fallujah, directly led to the rise in popularity of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its eventual transformation into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). This state of affairs was openly acknowledged by President Barack Obama in 2015 who admitted that the rise of ISIS was an “unintended consequence” of the US-led invasion.

Coalition invasion frustrates sectarian divisions, dismembers the state

Into the nightmare of chaos that was the coalition occupation – which has been termed an “atrocity producing situation” by former US marine Ross Caputi – and through the installing and propping up of sectarian leadership, age-old intra-religious faultlines and divisions were reignited.

The execution of Saddam Hussein on the day of Eid 2006 was choreographed to further incite Shia-Sunni violence. In records of Saddam Hussien’s last words, a group of individuals are heard chanting “Moqtada! Moqtada!” referring to the Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr. Saddam Hussein is heard to reply (translated): “Moqtada…Moqtada! Do you consider this bravery?” (Moqtada in Arabic is roughly translated as “valour”)

That same year, US war planes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house to kill al Zarqawi but reports that came to light in 2006 from witnesses and a member of the Delta team told how he was still alive after the bombing and his head was wrapped in cloth before he was bludgeoned to death.

US actions in Iraq were characterized by illegality. The killing of innocent civilians was facilitated by the systematic use of “reconnaissance by fire”, which is when soldiers fire into a house first to see if anyone is inside. Former marine Caputi wrote of how US troops stole from dead bodies and mutilated them.

Read more: Chilcot Report must acknowledge tortured ‘confessions’ as reason for Iraq war

It was these US soldiers that trained the Iraqi military. The Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force known as the Golden Division, assisted by Iranian-supported Shiite militias and US military advisors and hailed in the Western media as heroes against ISIS, was consolidated in 2005.

By the time the US withdrew between 2007 and 2011, the brutality had caught on. Imprisonment, arbitrary detention, torture and execution of prisoners by Iraqi forces followed. Iraq became one of the four top countries for carrying out executions.

A descent into sectarian barbarism while US and UK rubber stamp abuse

Abuses continued as ISIS increased its hold on Iraq, and secured major victories, capturing important strongholds like Fallujah in January 2014 and Mosul in June that same year. Between a rock and a hard place, Sunni Iraqi civilians persecuted by Shiites cautiously welcomed ISIS as the lesser of two evils. But ISIS capitalized on the ongoing sectarian divisions since the state had collapsed and been divided along sectarian lines, roughly pitting the Kurds and Shia against the Sunnis.  

When Mosul fell to ISIS, the collapse of the Iraqi Armed Forces gave rise to the Hashad al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces). This non-state, sectarian military force, was made of a mesh of Shia militias that enjoyed government support. Abu Izrael, one of their most prominent fighters is hailed as a hero for his crimes, one of them being roasting a prisoner alive on a spit then carving his flesh like a kebab.

Into this chaos came the US-backed and trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force known as the Golden Division which rose to prominence after the killing of Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi the leaders of ISI in 2010.

In 2015, graphic images of members of the Golden Division massacring civilians, torturing and executing prisoners, and displaying severed heads emerged.

But the impunity continued. In early 2017, the US coalition openly used white phosphorous in highly populated areas of Mosul. Also this year, US President Donald Trump – with no castigation by his British ally Theresa May – declared that “torture works”, officially rubber stamping war crimes on all sides of the conflict.

The War on Terror frames, facilitates and encourages abuse

The bombardment of Iraq from the sky has not ceased. Between February 19 and June 19 2017 alone, in what the Western media coined “the battle for Mosul”, coalition strikes reportedly killed 3,706 civilians, according to Airwars, an independent monitoring group in Iraq.

ISIS also reportedly killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, and Amnesty International accused them of herding civilians into conflict areas to use them as “human shields”. Amnesty, however, accused the Iraqi government forces and the US-led coalition of “failing to adequately adapt their tactics to these challenges – as required by international humanitarian law – with disastrous consequences for civilians”.

Reading between the lines, it is abundantly clear that the US coalition is fully aware of their own actions and that of their allies but there is little reporting in the mainstream news of the widespread terror and chaos they are unleashing.

Instead, isolated stories make it to the news. Last week, Linda Wentzel, 16, from Dresden, Germany who joined IS was captured by Iraqi troops who posed with the child, smiling, after they reclaimed Mosul this month. Wentzel is currently being detained by Iraqi forces, known for torture and sexual abuse.

The impunity with which war crimes are occurring in Iraq is rampant. The ‘War on Terror’ narrative has ensured that the moral compass on the ground is determined by the example of its leading nation, the United States, whose President advocates torture.

Plainly speaking, this must stop. There must be an immediate cessation of all hostilities and military action against areas with civilian populations and a halt to ethnic cleansing and arbitrary detention of non-combatants. Objective investigations into the multitude of war crimes committed in Iraq needs to take place.

In the light of the silence by the British media, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee or the Intelligence and Security Committee must investigate Britain’s complicity in the brutality unleashed in the region.

Read more: In his first days as president Donald Trump has openly endorsed war crimes

With networked communications abuzz around the world, we are all witnesses to the ineptitude or unwillingness of governments to act to put a stop to the cycles of violence. We simply cannot offer ignorance as a viable excuse.

Putting a stop to the violence means seeking accountability for war crimes at the very top of our bastions of power and attempting the seemingly impossible task to restore justice to all the people of Iraq.

Not learning from the lessons of the recent past and the ongoing open support by our governments for the forces unleashing this horror will by necessity lead to a creation of a threat far greater and more brutal than IS.


(CC image courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr)

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)