The White House release of Bush administration torture memos marked another step towards closure in what President Obama called a "dark and painful chapter in our history." But in Iraq, torture is not a thing of the past, according to the findings of a new study on civilian causalities.
Published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, the report examined the causes of death for 60,481 Iraqi civilians killed violently during the first five years of the war, using statistics compiled by Iraq Body Count. The findings are surprising to anyone familiar with the regular headlines from Iraq blaring explosions around the country. Executions with firearms, not bomb blasts, have killed most civilians in Iraq. Researchers say 33% of the victims examined in the study died by execution after abduction or capture. And 29% of those victims had signs of torture on their bodies such as bruises, drill holes or burns. Suicide bombers in cars or on foot were responsible for 14% of the victims in the study, while U.S. airstrikes killed 4%. (See pictures of the aftershock in Iraq and the U.S. from torture allegations at Abu Ghraib.)
Undoubtedly many of the documented instances of torture came when sectarian violence raged at crisis levels for more than a year starting in 2006. At that time Shi'ite militias, chiefly the Mahdi Army, drew much of the blame for widespread torture and executions as Sunni militants developed a reputation for killing with bombs. But torturing has not been an activity just for militiamen and militants in Iraq. The Iraqi government has consistently faced accusations of torture and maltreatment of prisoners through the years and still does. The most recent human rights report from the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq cites "continuing reports of the widespread and routine torture or ill-treatment of detainees, particularly those being held in pre-trial detention facilities, including police stations." (Read how the Bush Administration approved the use of insects during torture.)
How widespread torture remains in Iraqi jails at present is not publicly known. So far, neither the U.N. nor the Iraqi government has made any verifiable statistics available. But few doubt the practice continues today among Iraqi authorities and criminal elements. Torture, of course, has had a long history in Iraq, achieving particular notoriety during the era of Saddam Hussein. Observers say the recent years of war have created a social environment in which torture can continue to flourish. "In Iraq, we can notice all these acts of torture were done by young ages, people between 20 and 30," says Nahith Noras Shaker, professor of psychology at Baghdad University. "It's almost normal for them according to the violence they have witnessed on a daily basis. How do you think a child will act when grown after seeing hundreds of torn and burned bodies?"