Despite definitive evidence that its officers have committed severe rights abuses for at least two years, the United States military continues to work with a blacklisted unit of the Iraqi special forces in operations against the Islamic State in Iraq.
ABC News obtained hours of footage last week depicting officers of the unit, the Emergency Response Division (ERD), presiding over torture and executions in Mosul late last year. The footage was captured by Ali Arkady, an Iraqi photojournalist.
“The photos are sickening,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told ABC News in a statement. “They clearly depict war crimes.”
The ERD had already been blacklisted by Congress under the Leahy Act in March 2015, a law named after the aforementioned senator which is supposed to prevent the U.S. from aiding foreign groups if there is credible information that a group has “committed a gross violation of human rights.” But some American commanders continue to praise the successes of the ERD, touting a “fruitful partnership” with the unit.
“That they were brazenly lauded by the unit’s leader suggests that they were far from aberrations,” Sen. Leahy said in his statement. “It is my understanding that the United States no longer supports the Iraqi unit involved, but we should insist that the individuals responsible, and particularly the leaders, be prosecuted and appropriately punished. The fact that U.S. military personnel praised the Iraqi unit’s cooperation is deeply disturbing and requires further investigation by the Pentagon.”
Leahy believes the unit no longer receives American support, but it is not clear that is the case. Several U.S. officials have insisted on the military’s right to continue working alongside the ERD.
One military spokesman said that while an investigation into the alleged atrocities is warranted, there is no legal reason the United States cannot continue to work with the unit.
Another military spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led effort to expel ISIS from Iraq and Syria, said officials were not aware of the war crimes depicted in Arkady’s photography, but that the military has contacted Iraqi officials to address the allegations. The spokesman defended the military’s legal right to continue assisting the unit, deemed vital to the operation to liberate Mosul.
Arkady spent months embedded with elite Iraqi soldiers last year, and said that since turning over his footage to the press he has received death threats from some of those soldiers. He has now fled Iraq, seeking asylum in Europe.
“That’s a murder,” retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann told ABC after reviewing a particularly brutal excerpt of Arkady’s footage. “There should be punishment for anyone doing it. It’s reprehensible and it shouldn’t be allowed on any modern battlefield.”
Arkady had initially intended to produce a positive piece on the ERD, showing how soldiers from different Muslim sects could cooperate to combat extremism, but Arkady says that as the soldiers began to trust him, they allowed him to capture scenes of torture and abuse of prisoners. He said they later even sent him a video depicting the execution of a handcuffed prisoner.
In ABC’s interview with ERD captain Omar Nazar last week, the captain did not dispute the authenticity of Arkady’s footage and even defended the unit’s actions, claiming they were justified because the victims were linked to the Islamic State.
“We do not want war prisoners in our fight against ISIS,” Nazar told ABC. “We don’t take prisoners.”
Colonel Joe Scrocca, yet another military spokesman, said the ban under the Leahy Act “does not prevent the U.S. from working with the ERD, as we do with other elements of the Iraqi security forces, to help ensure a coordinated effort among different elements of the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] in the fight to defeat ISIS in Mosul.”
Human rights groups have condemned continued involvement with the ERD.
“The US government is playing a clunky shell game, pretending to move its assistance away from abusive Iraqi units like the ERD, while still working with them, training them and coordinating with them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Iraqi authorities are investigating the allegations and have sent officials to speak with families of victims.
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