by Andrew Stromotich
On September 29, 2005, shortly after 8 p.m., Amal Kadhum Swadi, and her youngest son Safa were arrested by U.S. forces in the Ghazaliya district of Baghdad on suspicion of planting an improvised explosive device.
They were just leaving their Baghdad home with other family members, and had opened their garage door to take out the family car, when the Swadi family were swarmed by multiple Humvees and numerous heavily armed U.S. Soldiers with weapons drawn.
Haloed by headlights and surrounded by agitated soldiers, mother and son were separated from each other and hidden from view of other family members behind a wall of troops and humvees. They were blindfolded and handcuffed tightly with the plastic zap straps and hoods that have become potent symbols of the dehumanization of Iraqis under occupation.
Ms. Swadi and Safa were made to squat on the highway’s dirt embankment while Zaid, her eldest son, was issued a handwritten receipt for his mother and brother. As Zaid yelled into the crowd of soldiers, trying to get response from his mother, Ms. Swadi and Safa were being packed into humvees for the trip to the Airport Detention Facility for further processing, leaving Zaid in a cloud of dust, clutching his receipt and trying to console his sobbing sister.
I first met Amal Swadi in Istanbul, at the culminating session of The World Tribunal on Iraq. Ms. Swadi was part of the Iraqi delegation invited to give testimony on their experiences of occupation; as a lawyer representing women held in Abu Ghraib and other U.S. and British detention facilities in Iraq, Ms. Swadi was there to speak on the degenerating state of human rights.
As I found out, Ms. Swadi is no stranger to the occupation, or the media covering it. As a lawyer willing to take on the mass of occupation, she is well known for her outspoken advocacy for those unfortunates caught in the machinery of occupation.
Amal Swadi is 52, and was accompanied to the Istanbul tribunal by her daughter, and eldest son Zaid, who is also a lawyer. At the events opening party, I was presented to Ms. Swadi and Zaid, whose love and respect for his mother were instantly apparent. He studied me closely as I was introduced, and when I put my hand out to shake his mother’s, he smiled and took it warmly.
Ms. Swadi, a humble religious woman, immediately forgave my lack of understanding of Islamic culture, and after a short conversation, agreed to be interviewed (the video of this interview will be available shortly).
Ms. Swadi’s involvement with investigations into female prisoners of the occupation started when she was told about a message the women detained in Abu Ghraib were trying to get to the resistance. The message, which had become public knowledge in the streets of Bagdad, was begging the resistance to attack Abu Ghraib with rockets, as the women held inside had given up hope, and could no longer bare the gross abuses and torture inflicted upon them daily. In Islam, as in Christianity, suicide is regarded as an ultimate sin, so these women were asking to be killed. Since then, Ms. Swadi has tirelessly worked for the recognition and release of these detainees (at the time I met her, she was representing nine of these shadow women).
Ms. Swadi told me of her visits to Abu Ghraib, and the difficulties she experienced in trying to gain access to the women held inside, including U.S. force’s outright denial of the women’s existence. When attempts to intimidate her did not work, dismissive guardsmen simply turned her away. When Ms. Swadi returned to Abu Ghraib for her second visit, she was accompanied by a determination cast in the previous sleepless night. Her resolve was eventually rewarded, and after waiting all day in one of the compound’s courtyards under the desert sun, without water or food, she was finally allowed access to her clients (six in total). Ms. Swadi told me the emotion of the experience was overwhelming, and she broke down and sobbed along with the first detainee presented.
Detainees were presented to her in a small, dark cement room that looked to be set up for interrogations. The women were escorted into the room through a heavy door behind a chair and desk. The guards accompanying her remained inches from these broken souls throughout the visits (it is referred to as being ‘in control’ of their subject).
The first detainee presented was a young woman in her 20’s. She was in poor condition, pale and gaunt, barely able to stand, and looked to be suffering from mental collapse. The woman stared at the floor, and when she did finally look up and see her visitor from the outside world, the two broke down.
During her brief interview, hindered not only by the woman’s captors who hovered only inches away at all times, but also by the woman’s fragile, quivering voice, Ms. Swadi learned how this woman’s young son and brother were killed in front of her during a raid on her home conducted by U.S. forces. She carried a crudely stitched wound the length of her forearm, which came from the bayonet of a soldier involved in the raid.
Since her arrest, the woman had been held naked in a small cement cell, without proper bedding or toilet. The woman spoke of rape and torture at the hands of her American and Iraqi captors. With Congress being presented with the images of Iraqi women forced to bare themselves as U.S. soldiers held guns to their heads, and with the Pentagon’s own acknowledgment of rape in their detention facilities, it is not hard to give credence to Ms. Swadi’s claims.
General Antonio Taguba, appointed to head the Pentagon’s investigation into Abu Ghraib torture and abuse allegations (which was restricted to investigation into members of the 800th Military Police Brigade), acknowledged that U.S. soldiers participated in rape at the prison. This acknowledgment came in the form of an inter-Pentagon memo in which General Taguba referred to images of American guards ‘having sex’ with female Iraqi detainees. Mr. Taguba’s choice of language when referring to rape is revealing, and further clarifies the Pentagon’s desensitized, casual attitude towards these crimes.
These images clearly depict violent sex crimes, with one congressman who was given access to these images collected by the Pentagon, stating that he believes the release will spark massive demonstrations and endanger Americans abroad (hardly the image of ‘consensual sex’ alluded to by Taguba).
General Taguba also reported that U.S. soldiers made videos of these violent sex crimes, a common practice amongst sex offenders, who often take trophies from their crimes to help them relive the event later (it is a practice that has aided greatly in the prosecuting of sex offences and will hopefully do the same in these cases). General Taguba has also acknowledged at least two pregnancies resulting from these sex crimes involving female detainees in Abu Ghraib.
With a recent attempt by the Senate to ban the Pentagon’s use of torture, and President Bush’s response of threatened veto of this bill, along with White House negotiations to exempt the CIA from any restraint with regards to torture, the image of a systematic use of torture becomes illuminated. For those already aware of the Phoenix Operation and the CIA’s past publication of torture manuals, this comes as no surprise.
On January 27, 1997, Baltimore Sun journalists Gary Cohn, Ginger Thompson, and Mark Matthews ran a story in their paper under the headline “Torture was taught by CIA”. The reporters relied heavily on two manuals printed by the CIA, and released under pressure from the Sun’s 1994 freedom of information challenge. The first manual, entitled KUBARAK Counterintelligence Interrogation- July 1963, along with the updated Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual-1983 Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual-1983, paint a picture of decades of CIA torture policy.
Although the Pentagon has maintained that these manuals were created only for educational purposes, in order to help U.S. troops identify torture facilities, the manuals themselves refute this position.
The 1963 manual states in the section entitled The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources that “drugs (and the other aids discussed in this section) should not be used persistently to facilitate the interrogative debriefing that follows capitulation. Their function is to cause capitulation, to aid in the shift from resistance to cooperation. Once this shift has been accomplished, coercive techniques should be abandoned both for moral reasons and because they are unnecessary and even counter-productive.”
The 1963 version also deals with the layout of ‘interrogation’ facilities, as noted in the Sun’s article. The manual states: “the electric current should be known in advance, so that transformers or other modifying devices will be on hand if needed.”
It is important to note that the updated 1983 manual first came to light publicly when it was recovered by resistance forces in Guatemala, who recovered it from U.S. backed military death squads in that country, who acquired this manual from the CIA School of the Americas training camp in Fort Benning, Georgia. It is also important to note that the U.S. embassy in neighboring Honduras has been generally accepted as the headquarters of CIA operations in Central America, with John Negroponte acting as ambassador during the bloody 1980’s (the same Negroponte apointed ambassador to Iraq when torture policy in Iraq first came to light).
These two manuals, and the visage of years of torture policy in Vietnam under the watchful eyes of the CIA, leave any argument of ‘rogue element’ responsibility for torture rather than systematic policy, totally unbelievable and impotent.
In the closing years of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam, and as it became more publicly obvious the U.S. was fighting those it claimed to protect (that in fact attacks on U.S. forces deep inside South Vietnam were being launched by the South Vietnamese themselves), the CIA launched a massive counter intelligence campaign aimed at targeting the South Vietnamese resistance, code named Phoenix.
With the Phoenix operation, the CIA started to compile lists of Vietnamese persons of interest. These lists were based on collected data and information gathered during subject ‘interviews’, and listed men, women and children as young as 15 and as old as 70.
This intelligence-gathering program was jointly run by US agents and those they recruited amongst the South Vietnamese forces. The administration of this program was eventually handed over completely to South Vietnamese forces, which kept no record of their victims; The CIA however, did, and by the end of official CIA involvement in Phoenix, over 20,000 Vietnamese listed had been tortured and murdered.
In 1971, Bart Osborn, a former CIA agent, told Congress “I never knew in the course of all those operations, any detainee to live through his interrogation. They all died. There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any one of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the VC, but they all died and the majority were either tortured to death or . . . thrown out of helicopters.”
As Nick Schou reports, “Operation Phoenix detainees were tortured with electric shocks applied to their genitals, while women prisoners were typically raped, occasionally with foreign objects.” (hauntingly similar to claims of treatment of modern Iraqi detainees).
Mr. Schou also points out in his article: Operation Phoenix Rises from the Ashes of History, that the CIA is now employing the Saddam era Mukhabarat (Iraqi Secret Intelligence similar in scope to the CIA) to investigate resistance support. Mr. Schou relies on statements by Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of CIA counter-terrorism, to highlight what this means. Cannistraro was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as saying “They’re clearly cooking up joint teams to do Phoenix-like things, like they did in Vietnam.”
As an advocate for those held without charge or trial by an occupation rooted in illegality, and under the increasing scrutiny of a world skeptical of U.S. intentions in Iraq, Amal Swadi is a person of interest indeed.
Amal Swadi and her 17-year-old son Safa, were brought into the heart of the machinery of occupation for processing. Ms Swadi blindfold and shackles were removed and she was instructed by her interrogator to answer questions related to her person.
Ms. Swadi and Safa, were scanned and fingerprinted. Her name, her husband’s name, and the names of her children were all documented. She was also asked her age, her address, and her occupation. Most alarming however was the collection of data on her religious status; apparently the U.S. military occupation felt it was pertinent to document if Ms. Swadi was Shia or Sunni.
What must be addressed is the motivation of U.S. occupational forces in recording individual’s religious affiliations in a country that is increasingly being divided along these very same religious lines, both in reality and by an oversimplified, blood frenzied corporate media intent on enflaming old rivalries. Why would U.S. forces be creating databases of information that could further pressurize this unstable situation (this also at a time of U.S. collusion with Saddam era secret police)?
During the years of heavy U.N. sanctions, most in Iraq depended upon government assistance to supplement their nutritional needs. This aid came in the form of food rations, and was facilitated through the issuance of ration cards. In order to receive a card, information was given and processed, but the question of religious affiliation was not included. Much like in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the secular Saddam era Iraq did not want religious distinction to become paramount. This lack of statistical data leaves in question population figures with regards to religious denomination continually referred to by occupational forces and parroted by the corporate media.
For Saddam Hussein, as it was for Tito, national identity was key to maintaining power, which simply meant stripping religion of any importance in public life. It was in fact this disregard for religion that made fundamentalist al-Qa’ida and Saddam Hussein bitter enemies.
The effect of this continual simplification of issues into Shia and Sunni has helped fuel a civil divide that is now being used as an excuse for occupation (Simply argued by both the British and U.S. occupational forces; if we leave they will kill each other).
It also hints of what was referred to as the ‘Vietnamising of the war’ in the later stages of that occupation. In an effort to reduce American casualties, the Pentagon trained native troops to do most of the heavy casualty fighting of occupation by fueling communist/capitalist phobias much in the same way religious difference is being highlighted now.
Although Ms. Swadi and Safa’s stories end for the time being on the limited high note of release (after being ‘tagged’ and ‘processed’ like livestock, mother and son were released back into the general population without further harm), the experience forewarns the enormity of the human rights disaster being perpetrated against the civilian population of Iraq in the name of democracy. It also explains why this information remains a mystery to most Americans, as this arrest clearly demonstartes the tactics used by a corrupt occupation to intimidate any daring to stand up.
Although generally unreported, this physical and psychological genocide is well underway and is being carried out by a U.S. Administration and Pentagon learned in the powers of terrorism and civil divide. It is a leadership willing to rape, torture, and murder much in the same way the U.S. war machine did in Vietnam, and as in Vietnam (which saw over 4 million direct deaths and countless others who continue to die from the arbitrary use of the WMD Agent Orange), this current illegal and emboldened occupation will likely post similar genocidal tallies if not made to immediately account for its activities and be held responsible for these actions.
Andrew Stromotich is an independent journalist and founding member of Dropframe Communications.
Video interview of Ms. Swadi at the Istanbul WTI shot for Dropframe by Rana Al-Aioubi and Andrew Stromotich will be released soon at www.dropframe.ca