WASHINGTON - U.S. military advisers have been implicated for the first time in human-rights abuses committed by sectarian Iraqi police commandos who set up a network of torture centers in post-war Iraq, a news report said Wednesday.
The report by London's Guardian newspaper and the BBC's Arabic-language service identifies the advisers as Colonel James Steele, a retired special forces veteran, and Colonel James H Coffman.
Steele was sent to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion to help organize the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency. Coffman worked alongside Steele in detention centers that were set up with U.S. funding and reported directly to General David Petraeus, who at the time was commander of multinational forces in Iraq.
There is no evidence that Steele or Coffman tortured prisoners, the report said. However, they were sometimes present in the detention centers where torture took place and were involved in processing of thousands of detainees, according to the report.
A key source for the story is General Muntadher al-Samari, who worked with Steele and Coffman for a year while the Iraqi commando units were being set up. He said Steele and Coffman knew everything that was going on in the centers.
Samari, who was Iraqi interior minister from 2003-05, spoke for the first time in detail about the U.S. role in the interrogation units. He described "the ugliest sorts of torture" he had ever seen, including detainees being hung upside down, having their nails pulled off and being beaten in sensitive areas.
The Pentagon did not respond to a dpa email request for comment. Steele did respond to questions from the Guardian and BBC Arabic about his role in the interrogations. Coffman declined to comment, the Guardian/BBC report said.
The report said Steele was previously involved in El Salvador as head of a U.S. team of special military advisers that trained units of the Central American country's security forces in counterinsurgency.
The impact of the U.S. backing of the paramilitary forces was that it unleashed a sectarian militia that terrorized the Sunni community and helped stoke a civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The Guardian/BBC Arabic investigation was sparked by the release of classified U.S. military logs on the website WikiLeaks. Those documents, released by Private Bradley Manning, detailed hundreds of incidents where U.S. soldiers came across tortured detainees in a network of detention centers run by the police commandos across Iraq.
Manning is facing a prison sentence after admitting last week that he gave thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in a bid to expose what he said were abuses by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges related to the leaks, but still faces 12 more serious charges, including aiding the enemy, and has pleaded not guilty to them.
It is the first time that Petraeus - who in November was forced to resign as director of the CIA after a sex scandal - has been linked through an adviser to the abuse, which the report said was common knowledge across Baghdad.