By Scott Taylor
Earlier this month the Toronto Star published an exposé complete with graphic photographs depicting horrific torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq. What made the story and images so shocking was that this barbarism was not the handiwork of Daesh (aka ISIS or ISIL) evildoers, but rather that those atrocities were blatantly perpetrated by the Iraqi Emergency Response Division (ERD).
The ERD is considered to be an elite counter-terrorism unit under the command of the Iraqi government’s Ministry of the Interior. The ERD has been a critical factor in the allied effort to recapture the city of Mosul from Daesh.
Canadian Special Operations Forces Command soldiers are working closely with Kurdish militia in that same vicious struggle to retake Mosul. While Canadians are not directly in support of the ERD, the soldiers in this elite unit are very much Canada’s close allies in a common struggle.
That is why the images of the ERD’s torture victims is so disturbing. The photos were taken by Ali Arkady, a photographer embedded with the ERD troops who seemingly had no qualms about allowing themselves to be filmed putting knives to prisoners heads, pressing fingers into eye sockets, or beating trussed up captives suspended from the ceiling.
Even more bizarrely, the ERD soldiers actually provided Arkady with a video depicting the execution of a terrified captive. In other words, there is no shame or guilt associated with their ruthless brutality; these guys are happy to have their violent exploits broadcasted for all to see.
Last week, General Jonathan Vance, Canada’s chief of defence staff, reacted to the torture revelations in an interview with the Toronto Star. “It doesn’t even fall into the category of understandable. In fact it mirrors what Daesh is doing, and you lose if you don’t maintain the moral high ground in this kind of war,” Vance said.
Vance also conceded that Canadians might question why Canada’s military is involved in a conflict wherein our allies are committing the exact same atrocities as those evildoers we are fighting against.
However, instead of questioning Canada’s role, Vance saw the ERD’s brutal behaviour as further proof as to why Canada should stay in Iraq. “They’re horrible. They need training, advice, and assistance,” he said.
To his credit, Vance apparently gets the fact that the ceaseless cycle of violence in Iraq’s interfactional conflict will continue unabated as long as reciprocal revenge is waged.
What Vance does not understand is that this level of barbarity is not going to be stopped by a few more lessons in a classroom, taught by good old Canadian combat soldiers with a firm grasp of the Geneva Convention. We do not have a training plan
that stresses the fact that prisoners are not to be beheaded, eye-gauged, or chained to the ceiling for days at a time. Some things we tend to simply take as a given.
Another problem with Vance’s assertion that training and assistance could turn the ERD around is the fact that they are not some “ragtag militia” as he asserted to the Star. The ERD are among the best-trained and motivated units available to the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
When Daesh first rolled out of Syria and captured a vast swath of Iraq in 2014, the U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi army collapsed without much of a fight. Tens of thousands of soldiers defected en masse, leaving their weapon arsenals and vehicle fleets at the disposal of Daesh fighters.
The only thing that prevented Daesh from seizing Baghdad was a desperate call-out for volunteer Shia militias to stem the Sunni Muslim fanatical Daesh.
Those same Shia militias are still in the fight against Daesh and, therefore, are also ostensibly Canada’s allies in this fight. Unlike the Iraqi government’s ERD unit, these Shia militias are truly ill-disciplined and ragtag.
They are also fighting for purely factional-based revenge against Daesh’s Sunni supporters.
If a photographer embedded with an elite Iraqi government unit can uncover rampant occurrences of torture and execution, one can only imagine what sort of revenge abuse is being meted out by Canada’s even more notorious allies — the Shia militia.
Vance was right in his first assessment of the torture revelations: Canadians should seriously question why we are taking sides in this barbaric bloodletting.