The 16 November edition of the Guardian carried two stories sharply exposing the brutal character of the US occupation in Iraq.
On the same day that the Iraqi government began an investigation into the 173 starved, beaten and apparently tortured prisoners locked in a government bunker beneath Baghdad, the US army admitted that, despite previous denials, it had used the chemical weapon white phosphorus in its attack on Falluja last year.
The Baghdad prisoners were discovered by US troops during the search for a missing teenage boy. Even an Iraqi interior minister described their condition as “the worst” he had seen in the last two years: “I saw signs of physical abuse by brutal beating, one or two detainees were paralysed and some had their skin peeled off.” The Guardian also reports rumours circulating in Baghdad of mutilated corpses and torture instruments being found in the underground bunker.
All the prisoners seem to have been Sunni. There have been accusations that the Shia-dominated Iraq government is using mass detention of Sunnis to take revenge for the persecution of Shia Iraqis during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. While the Sunni political groups making these claims are themselves highly reactionary, the accusations are certainly not implausible.
Meanwhile, two Iraqi businessmen who were detained by US forces in 2003 are suing defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other US officials in a federal court in Washington, making claims of mock execution and multiple acts of torture during their months in captivity. If the US army has now stepped back and delegated arbitrary detention and torture to the Iraqi government’s security forces, this is not exactly a sign of progress.
The US ambassador to Britain Robert Tuttle stated in a recent letter to the Independent that “US forces do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons”. Yet on November 15 a Pentagon spokesman admitted to the BBC that the latter had been used as “an incendiary weapon” during the assault on the “resistance” stronghold of Falluja in November 2004. It looks as if the Pentagon was forced into the admission after a recent documentary on the Italian state broadcaster RAI claimed that many Iraqi, including women and children, had died of white phosphorus burns during the battle for Falluja.
White phosphorus, a chemical substance which burns down to the bone in contact with skin, is not covered by international conventions on chemical warfare - but he fact that the US officials initially denied its use suggests that they are fully aware of how it is seen by world public opinion.
The revelations of torture by the Iraqi government and chemical warfare by the US armed forces are a reminder to socialists of how foolish we would be to endorse the occupation of Iraq as a progressive alternative to the reactionary militarism of the Islamist-Ba’thist “resistance”.