Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Kirkukification

I haven’t seen much commentary on this story, but it's worth reading to see yet another dimension to the extraordinary challenges Iraq faces. It describes how Kurdish police and military units allied with the U.S. military are kidnapping non-Kurds in Kirkuk – a city the Kurdish leadership covets for various reasons – and spiriting them out of the province to prisons where they are held incommunicado and sometimes beaten and tortured.

There are at least a half-dozen big issues here – among them ethnic tensions, raw political and economic power grabs, and of course human rights abuses by supposedly reputable authorities. But what jumps out is the conflicted role of the U.S. military. Officers in the story denounce the kidnappings and swear up and down they tried to stop them the moment they found out what was happening. But the story also describes how U.S. forces participated in some of these questionable transfers, and also quotes officials praising the Kurdish units responsible for them.

One point in the story captures this well:
[Kirkuk Police Chief] Abdel-Rahman said he was concerned that the Americans were being duped by the Kurds, who he said have cloaked what is effectively a power grab as a crackdown on the insurgents. Their strategy, he said, is to bolster their alliance with the Americans.

"Unfortunately, they have succeeded," he said.

Blagburn, the intelligence officer, said that even though the Emergency Services Unit is largely responsible for the secret transfers, it continues to provide valuable assistance in the counterinsurgency. Blagburn termed the unit "a very cooperative, coalition-friendly system."

"We know we can drop a guy in there and he'd be taken care of and he's safe," Blagburn said. "That's the reason why the ESU is used most of the time. That's basically the unit we can trust the most."

You have to wonder the degree to which the U.S. forces’ own questionable tactics in the handling of prisoners sends a message to our Iraqi partners that, well, anything goes as long as it’s part of the war on terror. And when the U.S. objects to Iraqi forces using such tactics, you have to think a certain amount of winking is going on – or at least that the Iraqis think there is and behave accordingly. This could mean the abysmal U.S. human rights record is more than just an image problem - that it's directly harming our joint efforts to build a civil society in Iraq.