The republic of fear is born again. The state of terror now gripping Iraq is as bad as it was under Saddam Hussein. Torture in the country may even be worse than it was during his rule, the United Nation’s special investigator on torture said yesterday.
“The situation as far as torture is concerned now in Iraq is totally out of hand,” said Manfred Nowak. “The situation is so bad many people say it is worse than it had been in the times of Saddam Hussein.”
The report, from an even-handed senior UN official, is in sharp contrast with the hopes of George Bush and Tony Blair, when in 2003 they promised to bring democracy and respect for human rights to the people of Iraq. The brutal tortures committed in the prisons of the regime overthrown in 2003 are being emulated and surpassed in the detention centres of the present US- and British-backed Iraqi government. “Detainees’ bodies show signs of beating using electric cables, wounds in different parts of their bodies including in the head and genitals, broken bones of legs and hands, electric and cigarette burns,” the human rights office of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq says in a new report.
The horrors of the torture chamber that led to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq being labelled “The Republic of Fear”, after the book of that title by Kanan Makiya, have again become commonplace. The bodies in Baghdad’s morgue ” often bear signs of severe torture including acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin, broken bones (back, hands and legs), missing eyes and wounds caused by power drills or nails”, the UN report said. Those not killed by these abuses are shot in the head.
Human rights groups say torture is practised in prisons run by the US as well as those run by the Interior and Defence ministries and the numerous Sunni and Shia militias.
The pervasive use of torture is only one aspect of the utter breakdown of government across Iraq outside the three Kurdish provinces in the north. In July and August alone, 6,599 civilians were killed, the UN says.
One US Army major was quoted as saying that Baghdad is now a Hobbesian world where everybody is at war with everybody else and the only protection is self-protection.
Iraq is in a state of primal anarchy. Paradoxically, the final collapse of security this summer is masked from the outside world because the country is too dangerous for journalists to report what is happening. Some 134 journalists, mostly Iraqi, have been killed since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The continuing rise in the number of civilians killed violently in Iraq underlines the failure of the new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki installed in May after intense US and British pressure. The new government shows no signs of being more effective than the old. “It is just a government of the Green Zone,” said an Iraqi official, referring to the fortified zone in central Baghdad housing the Iraqi government as well as the US and British embassies.
In an attempt to regain control of the capital and reduce sectarian violence, government and US troops launched “Operation Together Forward” in mid-July, but it seems to have had only marginal impact for a couple of weeks. The number of civilians killed in July was 3,590 and fell to 3,009 in August but was on the rise again at the end of the month.
The bi-monthly UN report on Iraq is almost the only neutral and objective survey of conditions in the country. The real number of civilians killed in Iraq is probably much higher because, outside Baghdad, deaths are not recorded. The Health Ministry claims, for instance, that in July nobody died violently in al-Anbar province in western Iraq, traditionally the most violent region, but this probably means the violence was so intense that casualty figures could not be collected from the hospitals.
Nobody in Iraq is safe. Buses and cars are stopped at checkpoints and Sunni or Shia are killed after a glance at their identity cards. Many people now carry two sets of identity papers, one Shia and one Sunni. Car number plates showing that it was registered in a Sunni province may be enough to get the driver shot in a Shia neighbourhood. Sectarian civil war is pervasive in Baghdad and central Iraq. Religious processions are frequently attacked. On 19 and 20 August, a Shia religious pilgrimage came under sustained attack that left 20 dead and 300 wounded.
The Iraqi state and much of society have been criminalised. Gangs of gunmen are often described on state television as “wearing police uniforms” . One senior Iraqi minister laughed as he told The Independent: ” Of course they wear police uniforms. They are real policemen.”
On 31 July, for instance, armed men in police uniforms driving 15 police vehicles kidnapped 26 people in an area of Baghdad known as Arasat that used to be home to several of the capital’s better restaurants. Gunmen dressed in police uniforms had also kidnapped the head of Iraq’s Olympic Committee, Ammar Jabbar al-Saadi, and 12 others, in the centre of Baghdad. Ransom demands were made. The US military suspected that Baghdad police’s serious crime squad may have been responsible and stormed its headquarters to search vainly for the kidnap victims in its basement.
It has long been a matter of amusement and disgust in Iraq that government ministers travel abroad to give press conferences claiming that the insurgency is on its last legs. One former minister said: “I know of ministers who have never been to their ministries but get their officials to bring documents to the Green Zone where they sign them.”
Beyond the Green Zone, Iraq has descended into murderous anarchy. For several days this month, the main road between Baghdad and Basra was closed because two families were fighting over ownership of an oilfield.
Government ministries are either Shia or Sunni. In Baghdad this month, a television crew filming the morgue had to cower behind a wall because the Shia guards were fighting a gun battle with the Sunni guards of the Electricity Ministry near by.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, published by Verso.