Cam Simpson and Liz Sly, Chicago Tribune
WASHINGTON - U.S. officials are doling out millions of dollars of arms and ammunition to Iraqi police units without safeguards required to ensure they are complying with American laws that ban taxpayer-financed assistance for foreign security forces engaged in human-rights violations, according to an internal State Department review.
The previously undisclosed review shows that officials failed to take steps to comply with the laws over the past two years, amid mounting reports of torture and murder by Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces. The review comes at a time when the U.S. military emphasis in Iraq has switched to training and equipping Iraqi forces to replace American troops.
As Iraq slides deeper into sectarian violence, the performance of U.S.-supported Iraqi units could be crucial, because some are infiltrated by militias believed responsible for much of the current strife.
The laws in question are called the Leahy Amendments for their author, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Unless the administration reports to Congress that "effective measures" are being taken to bring abusers to justice, it is supposed to cut off support for any unit in a foreign security force whose members commit serious human-rights violations. Units also are supposed to be vetted before receiving assistance.
But the internal memo suggests that U.S. officials believe it is not possible to comply with the laws in Iraq, noting the "burden of following the usual State Department procedures as they are practiced at other posts would vastly overwhelm (the Baghdad embassy's) available resources."
It also cites what are called unprecedented challenges created by Iraq's ongoing violence, the size and importance of the U.S. effort to establish effective Iraqi security forces, and what officials say is a lack of resources.
The Chicago Tribune was given access to the memo, which was drafted after the newspaper raised questions in Washington and Baghdad, Iraq, about how the Leahy laws were being implemented in the wake of reports of serious abuses corroborated by American military officials and the former United Nations human-rights chief in Iraq.
Among the shortcomings in compliance identified by the State Department is the fact that U.S. officials have not tracked the arms they distribute nationwide to local Iraqi police, nor have they vetted the units receiving those weapons to make sure they have not committed human-rights violations.
On a more basic level, the memo says U.S. officials face "a serious challenge" in even compiling, sorting and analyzing reports of Iraqi rights violations, a move identified as a "necessary first step" for complying with the laws. Similarly, there is still no comprehensive system identifying Iraqi recruits receiving aid and training.
A State Department official in Washington said the United States has taken other steps to aggressively "shape an environment that promotes and respects human rights" in Iraq, including mandating human-rights lessons for "all police and military trainees."
Leahy, in a statement to the Tribune, said the purpose of the laws that carry his name "is to prevent U.S. aid from going to perpetrators of atrocities so we are not implicated in those crimes."
He said it would be "a serious violation of U.S. law" if "our weapons and other aid have been given to Iraqi security forces without first identifying the officers to receive it and investigating their backgrounds, despite abundant evidence that these forces have engaged in torture and extra-judicial killings."
Leahy crafted the restrictions after disclosures in the 1990s of abuses by U.S.-supported forces in Latin America. The disclosures included the public release of training manuals that advocated abusive techniques and were employed to train Latin American officials in their home countries and at the former U.S. Army School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga.
Procedures for implementing the Leahy restrictions are adopted and taken seriously at major U.S. posts worldwide, including in Colombia and Guatemala, where the performance of military and security forces long has been an issue. The U.S. posts are guided by a cable of more than 4,000 words sent periodically from the secretary of state's office in Washington to all U.S. embassies, in addition to special measures that are supposed to be put in place locally, records show.
Strict adherence to the laws in Iraq could pose a serious challenge for the Bush administration's exit strategy, which involves training and outfitting enough Iraqi forces to effectively replace American troops.
That problem appears to be recognized in the memo, which states that future steps "toward normalized Leahy vetting procedures must be taken without slowing the training and equipping of (Iraqi security forces) and without overwhelming the (U.S. Embassy) with additional work that would divert the scarce resources" available.
Top American officials have declared 2006 the year of the Iraqi police. The Defense Department is expected to spend about $1 billion on training and equipping those police this year in an effort to create a competent, 200,000-strong force under the authority of Iraq's Interior Ministry.
U.S. military leaders also said earlier this year that they would assign 2,000 advisers to work with Iraqi police units.
Clearly, some U.S. military officials in Baghdad have taken Iraqi human-rights abuses seriously in the past several months, despite the embassy's shortcomings in complying with the Leahy laws. Late last year, Brig. Gen. Karl Horst carried out a raid on a secret bunker used as a detention facility by the Interior Ministry. Many of the detainees had been tortured.
In addition, Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, commander of the police training effort, said in a recent interview in Baghdad that he personally handed a translated copy of the Leahy amendments to Interior Minister Bayan Jabr in an effort to convince the Iraqi official of the seriousness of the issue. And Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, issued a public threat earlier this year to cut off assistance for Iraqi security forces unless they were put under the control of neutral officials.
But the State Department memo and interviews with officials in Iraq make clear that U.S. efforts have been uneven.
The most serious lapse appears to be the failure to identify, vet and track units that have received weapons or other U.S.-financed equipment.
While U.S. officials in Iraq did not answer questions about how many weapons they have distributed overall, Interior Ministry forces were issued more than 10,000 AK-47 rifles, 16,000 pistols and 800 light and medium machine guns during one recent three-month period, according to a Defense Department report to Congress in February.
The State Department memo says such weapons have been issued to local Interior Ministry police forces nationwide, known as the Iraqi Police Services, based solely on "hand receipts" signed by any of the 18 provincial police directors in the country.
The official in charge of a province is then free to "subsequently issue (guns) to subordinate units," the memo shows.
For weapons distributed to Iraq's National Police, also based in the Interior Ministry, the memo says there is accountability only to the brigade level - not to units further down the chain of command.
The State Department official in Washington said the U.S. military plans to have some of the 2,000 advisers joining Iraqi police units this year hand-check weapons and track their distribution.
Sectarian violence in Iraq has increased dramatically over the past year, to the point where senior U.S. officials now identify the problem as a greater threat to Iraq's stability than terrorism or the Sunni-led insurgency.
It has become routine for corpses of Sunni men to appear on the streets of Baghdad, in many cases bound, shot execution-style and bearing signs of torture. In most cases, the men's families or other witnesses reported that they had been detained by security forces, often wearing the uniforms of the U.S.-supported police commandos charged with counterinsurgency operations. That has raised concerns that the commandos acting as anti-Sunni death squads are widespread.
In some instances, U.S. officials say they suspect insurgents are disguising themselves as police in order to stir sectarian tensions, or that Shiite militias pursuing sectarian agendas are using police uniforms.
The U.S. military has confirmed the existence of at least one death squad operating under the ministry's auspices, and is convinced others exist. The Shiite militias clearly are a force within the Interior Ministry.
Jabr, who heads the ministry, is a senior official in the pro-Iranian Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The party's armed wing, the Badr Organization, is suspected of involvement in many of the abuses.
The U.S. military acts on every report of abuse it receives, intervening on the spot where necessary and following up reports of abuse at detention facilities with inspections, said Peterson, the police training commander.
"Every time we find abuse it's reported up the chain of command," he said.
But there still is no formal mechanism within the U.S. Embassy for monitoring or measuring abuses, whether in detention facilities or on the streets of Iraq, according to the State Department memo and interviews with U.S. officials.
Even when the embassy receives handwritten allegations from Iraqis, it does not track such reports, the memo indicates. And it calls a tracking system "a necessary first step towards building a vetting tool that can be a cornerstone of normalized Leahy vetting procedures."
A U.S. diplomat in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said tracking human-rights abuses still appears to be a largely ad hoc affair that relies on reports from Baghdad's morgue, the media and Iraqi political parties.
In addition, the diplomat said that following up on such reports is a significant challenge given the danger in traveling outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, the difficulty of gaining the trust of ordinary Iraqis and the abuse victims' fears of retribution.
However, she also questioned whether it would be useful to withdraw funding from the security forces now that the U.S. police-training effort contains a greater focus on human rights.
"There must be a fine line between taking away funding that we think would strengthen human rights at the (Interior Ministry)," she said.
In the earliest stages of the training effort, which began in earnest in 2004, the emphasis was on quantity rather than quality, Peterson said. But as the reports of abuses began to emerge, it became clear that it was necessary also to focus on the quality of the force, so the 10-week training program now includes 32 hours of instruction on human rights, he said.
Despite the discovery last fall of tortured detainees in the bunker used by the Interior Ministry and promises that other abuses would be probed, "Americans are not inspecting Iraqi detention facilities," said a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Coalition and embassy officials provide "technical and transport support" to Iraqis carrying out inspections of the facilities, but they do not participate in the inspections, the second diplomat said.
The long-awaited results of a U.S. investigation into the bunker incident still have not been released.
The Leahy restrictions have been included annually in legislation authorizing spending for the State and Defense Departments since 1999, although a less comprehensive version first passed Congress in 1997.