The United States government is holding some 27,000 human beings in secret prisons around the world. The overwhelming majority of them are being held indefinitely, without charges, without rights, cut off from the outside world, and subject to "harsh interrogation techniques" (to use the prim locution for "torture" used by the Bush Administration and universally adopted by the American media).
Many of these captives are stuffed into holding pens in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, which is still in operations despite the momentary torture-photo scandal of 2004 -- and despite Bush's earnest promise to Iraqis to tear down that hated symbol of Saddam's torture. Other captives are crammed into the holds of prison ships floating around the world. Still others languish in the torture chambers of the Bush Administration's Terror War allies -- despotisms, tyrannies, brutal kingdoms -- having been "renditioned" there by American agents, sometimes after being kidnapped, or sold into captivity by bounty hunters, or snatched up in mass sweeps or random grabs or simply for having the wrong name, the wrong face, the wrong color, the wrong religion.
In any civilized country, such facts would provoke banner headlines, marathon television debates, investigations, prosecutions and widespread public revulsion. It might have done so even in the United States not all that long ago. But the most recent encapsulation of these horrors -- from Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, speaking earlier this week on Democracy Now -- has caused scarcely a ripple. Even that is putting it too strongly; in the mainstream media, the news has been greeted with the usual iron curtain of silence.
And this even though Stafford -- who has served as the lawyer for more than 50 prisoners at Guantanamo (ironically, one of the few places in the American gulag where captives now have limited access to very circumscribed legal help) -- offers a genuine revelation in his interview, one that cries out for more investigation from, say, a network or newspaper with large-scale resources. And that is the fact that the Bush Administration is shipping captive from different parts of the world to Iraq, where they are beyond the scrutiny of the press -- or those pesky attorneys with their silly concerns about the rule of law:
Well you know, one thing that my charity, Reprieve, out of London, we've been trying to do is track down the real ghost prisoners in this process. And if you look at Guantanamo Bay, 270, roughly, as you mentioned, prisoners in Guantanamo, but according to the most recent official figures, the United States is currently holding 27,000 secret prisoners around the world. So that means that 99 percent of these folk are not in Guantanamo Bay. Now they're in other prisons elsewhere. And as you mentioned, Bagram has 680. But there's a huge number of people being held in Iraq, and one of the intriguing aspects of this that doesn't get much reporting is that the US is bringing people into Iraq from elsewhere to hold them there, simply because that keeps rather annoying people like you, Amy—I mean the media—and also annoying people like me, lawyers, away from the prisoners so they can't get any sort of legal rights.
And when you look around the world, there's a huge camp, Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, where a lot of people are being held. Diego Garcia, contrary to the past analysis of the British government, in the Indian Ocean has been used, in my belief, to hold people. And we've identified thirty-two prison ships, sort of prison hulks you used to read about in Victorian England, which have been converted to hold prisoners, and we've got pictures of them in Lisbon Harbor, for example. And these are holding prisoners around the world, as well. And there's a bunch of proxy prisons—Morocco, Egypt and Jordan—where this stuff is going on. And this is a huge concern, because the world focus is on Guantanamo Bay, which really is a diversionary tactic in the whole war of terror or war on terror, whatever you'd like to call it. And actually, most of these people who have been severed from their legal rights are in these other secret prisons around the world.
As Smith rightly notes, the American concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay -- for all its iconic status -- is actually an effective diversion from the large-scale atrocities going on across the Bush Gulag. (And the Bush Administration is trying to turn into an even greater diversion, with show trials of several Gitmo inmates scheduled for the height of the presidential campaign -- although, again, those law-and-order whiners keep getting in the way, most recently forcing a postponement of the first show trial from its intended June start date.) The most extensive -- and most secretive -- aspects of the Gulag are taking place in the outer darkness, in furtive hidey-holes in Iraq and elsewhere.
Iraq continues to be the heart of this darkness, the worm of war crime that corrupts all. The reality of the war continues to be woefully underreported – but at least some glimpses of this particular quadrant of the imperium's hell do make it into the papers. For example, the Washington Post reports – on page 10 – on the "surge" in U.S. airstrikes on the heavily-populated civilian precincts of Sadr City in Baghdad, and all around Iraq. As you read the excerpts, remember that there is no reason for American forces to be in Iraq at all, that they were sent there under false pretenses to carry out an act of aggression on behalf of predatory elites who have enriched themselves and their cronies on the blood money of the war:
From an Apache helicopter, Capt. Ben Katzenberger's battlefield resembles a vast mosaic of tiny brown boxes. "The city looks like a bucket of Legos dumped out on the ground," the 26-year-old pilot said. "It's brown Legos, no color. It's really dense and hard to pick things out because everything looks the same."
He uses a powerful lens to zoom in on tiny silhouettes, trying to identify people with "hostile intent" among hundreds of ordinary citizens in Baghdad. In recent weeks, Katzenberger and other pilots have dramatically increased their use of helicopter-fired missiles against enemy fighters, often in densely populated areas. Since late March, the military has fired more than 200 Hellfire missiles in the capital, compared with just six missiles fired in the previous three months.
The military says the tactic has saved the lives of ground troops and prevented attacks, but the strikes have also killed and wounded civilians, provoking criticism from Iraqis.
On Wednesday, eight people, including two children, were killed when a U.S. helicopter opened fire on a group of Iraqis traveling to a U.S. detention center to greet a man who was being released from custody, Iraqi officials said....
"It's not Hollywood and it's not 110 percent perfect," said Col. Timothy J. Edens, the commander of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, of the accuracy of his unit's strikes. "It is as precise as very hardworking soldiers and commanders can make it. These criminals do not operate in a clean battle space. It is occupied by civilians, law-abiding Iraqis."
Those civilians include people like Zahara Fadhil, a 10-year-old girl with a tiny frame and long brown hair. Relatives said she was wounded by a missile on April 20 at approximately 8 p.m. in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City. The U.S. military said it fired a Hellfire missile in Zahara's neighborhood at that time, targeting men who were seen loading rockets into a sedan.
Her face drained of color and her legs scarred by shrapnel, Zahara spoke haltingly when asked what she thought of U.S. troops.
"They kill people," she said. Lying in bed, she gasped for air before continuing. "They should leave Iraq now."
Another similar incident this week is reported by Reuters:
Iraqi police said on Thursday a U.S. helicopter airstrike killed eight civilians, including two children, but U.S. forces said the six adults killed were militants suspected of links to a bombing network...
Colonel Mudhher al-Qaisi, police chief in the town of Baiji, north of the capital, said a U.S. helicopter fired at a group of shepherds in a vehicle in a farming area on Wednesday night. "This is a criminal act. It will make the relations between Iraqi citizens and the U.S. forces tense. This will negatively affect security improvements," Qaisi told Reuters.
The U.S. military said the incident happened when American soldiers, hunting members of a bombing network, tried to detain the occupants of a vehicle. "Coalition forces engaged the target vehicle's occupants, killing five terrorists, after the terrorists exhibited hostile intent and failed to comply with instructions to surrender. Two children in the vehicle were also killed," it said....
Reuters pictures showed relatives of the dead standing beside corpses covered by white sheets outside a mosque in Baiji, an oil refining town 180 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad. "There were two boys, one was eight and the other was 11," said police Major Ahmed Hussein. United Nations officials have expressed concern at the number of civilians killed in airstrikes in Iraq...
The Washington Post continues:
Hassan Ali Kreidy, 54, a barber in Sadr City, felt the power of the Apaches' missiles on April 28 when one ravaged his shop and a handful of other businesses. The apparent target of a strike was a car parked in front, he said.
"What can you say? We are all helpless," said Ahmed Abdul Rahim, who owns a cellphone store that was also damaged. "What have we done to deserve this? Our stores are now in danger. None of us are safe here."
At the Martyr Sadr Hospital late last month, several patients said they were wounded in U.S. airstrikes. Their accounts could not be corroborated; some may have been wounded by errant rockets fired by militiamen. Hussein Amane Kareem al-Obeidi, 37, a day laborer, lay with a bloody tube sticking out of his right nostril and two others draining fluid from his stomach. They were attached to sacks lying on a filthy floor. One was filled with urine, the other with blood. He said he was at home on May 1 when a missile landed nearby, damaging nine homes. His mother, standing at his bedside, cursed the U.S. military.
"They are occupiers and they consider whoever is in the city to be an enemy to them!" she said. "They came for the destruction of the country and this is what they are doing."
In such cases, American officials point to the principle of "force protection;" a large proportion of airstrikes are attributed to helping out ground forces under fire. And of course there is always the goal of "killing terrorists." But again, we must stress this point: none of those American forces should be in Iraq, putting their own and others' lives in danger.
And we should also note here what we've said often before: under the plans offered by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for partial "withdrawals" of "combat troops" from Iraq – while leaving an unspecified number of forces in the conquered land for "counterterrorism operations," "training Iraqi security forces" and "force protection" for American personnel and assets remaining in Iraq – these kinds of air raids on civilian areas will inevitably increase, with more innocent deaths as a result.
Consider too the tragic warping of young minds thrust into the role of imperial enforcers in a criminal action:
Katzenberger, of Kansas City, Mo., fired his first missiles last month. Arriving in Iraq last winter on his first deployment was nerve-wracking, he said. "You've been building up for this for three years and now you're going to get to do what you were trained to do," he said. "You get this bit of excited rush feeling, like right before you get out of the locker room before a game. We got in the helicopter and started flying up and you start looking down and you're like -- wow. I'm in Iraq now. This isn't back in Texas where we were just training. People down there are going to try to shoot me. This is for real. Game on."
....Firing his first missile in Baghdad was sobering. "I know I can do this," he told himself. The target was in sight and permission from ground commanders had been granted. "I've done this before. But you better not screw this up. If you mess up, people get hurt."
Katzenberger said pilots adhere to strict rules of engagement. They occasionally get reports of what happened on the ground after they fire the missiles. After that, "we never hear about it again," he said. "It leaves you a little sense of wondering. You kind of get that detached feeling."
"You get that detached feeling." Here we see the agonizing spectacle of a young man deadening his soul, trying his best to stifle his humanity --- "I know I can do this" – so that he can kill another human being, somewhere down there in the jumble of brown Legos, "where everything looks the same."
How crime compounds on crime in this nightmare Terror War. Young Americans twist their souls in knots in order to kill and maim – and torture -- their fellow creatures, all to gorge the bestial urges of a gang of gilded thugs for more power, more loot, more blood to prove their apish dominance.
And still it goes on. And still none of our "leaders" will rise up and use the powers given to them by the Constitution to bring this torment of gulags and aggressive war to an end. And still the people sit in their homes (those who still have them, that is) and do nothing, raise no objections, bring no pressure to bear, make no outcry against the crimes being done in their name.
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This story was published on May 24, 2008.