What Obama should tell Maliki

Earlier this year, interviewing prisoners in Shaaba Khamsa, Baghdad’s death row facility, I met a 52-year-old woman, one of the thousands of prisoners the U.S. turned over to Iraqi custody when American troops left nearly two years ago. She showed me the scars where security forces had burned her with cigarettes, used electric shocks and beat her so badly that she was still using crutches three years later.

Two courts had declared her innocent of the terrorism charges against her, owing in part to a medical report documenting the extensive torture that led to her confession. A third court, though, reversed these rulings and sentenced her to death late last year, on the basis of “secret evidence provided by the Americans.”

In September, she was among 42 prisoners executed in Iraq in two days.

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Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is in Washington this week to ask President Obama for warplanes, drones, and other assistance for Iraq’s counterterrorism efforts. The president should send a clear message that the kind of assistance Maliki seeks is not possible as long as his security forces continue their widespread torture – often in the name of counterterrorism.

In light of the daily horrors that Iraqis face from car bombings and suicide attacks, Prime Minister Maliki’s plea for counterterrorism assistance might appear reasonable. But the Iraqi government subjects its own people to terrible abuses that have helped to feed a vicious cycle of violence, using lethal force against peaceful protesters and torturing men and women caught up in indiscriminate dragnets. When I visited the Central Prison for Women and the death row facility, I saw physical signs of torture on more than 20 women, most of whom were detained on terrorism charges solely on the basis of their relationship to wanted male family members.

In the countdown to its departure from Iraq in 2011, the U.S. ignored widely available evidence that Iraqi security forces directly answerable to the prime minister were detaining and torturing peaceful government critics, and had detained hundreds of others in a secret Baghdad jail. When Maliki visited in December 2011, Obama praised his “leadership skills.” Immediately upon returning home, Maliki ordered the arrests of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and several of his staff, one of whose body showed signs of torture after he died in custody.

The U.S. public silence about these abuses has emboldened Maliki and failed to contribute to a safer Iraq. Numerous Iraqis, Shia and Sunni alike, told me that the failure to hold those responsible for crimes like torture accountable is contributing to greater instability, exacerbating sectarian tensions, and  polarizing Iraq’s population. People in Sunni areas see the failure to hold Shia-dominated security forces accountable as confirmation that government policies remain rooted in sectarianism.

The U.S. may be supporting Iraqi forces implicated in these abuses. In early 2013, the Wall Street Journal cited information from US officials in reporting that the CIA  and other US intelligence personnel were cooperating with Iraqi security forces that have allegedly committed abuses, especially the Counter-Terrorism Service. Less direct, but no less significant, support for these forces has come in the form of the billions of dollars in military equipment the US provided to security forces whose cruelty has fueled, rather than quelled, violence in Iraq.

Obama should engage with Iraq in the name of security, but this means addressing the human rights disaster that is shaking the country’s foundations. The U.S. should immediately cease any cooperation by the CIA and other U.S. or U.S.-affiliated intelligence and security personnel with Iraqi security forces about which there are credible allegations of abuses. The president should refuse Maliki arms and counterterrorism support until his government takes clear and measurable steps to end widespread abuses like torture, including holding those responsible for such abuses accountable.

On October 30, a group of senators expressed their concern to President Obama about the contribution that Prime Minister Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics” was making to Iraq’s surge in violence. But they nevertheless recommended that the U.S. assist Iraq in its counterterrorism efforts, while the prime minister adopts a strategy to solve Iraq’s governance problems. Unfortunately, they failed to recognize the interdependent relationship between what they described as Maliki’s “sectarian and authoritarian agenda,” Iraq's counterterrorism measures, and the “devolving security situation.”

Since there is no indication that Maliki will undertake genuine reforms to welcome the Sunni and Kurdish communities his abusive policies have alienated, there is no reason to expect US security assistance will bring stability and security to Iraq. The only alternative is to publicly hold Maliki accountable until these conditions are met.

Maliki called on the U.S. this week to help Iraq “walk down the road towards democracy and security.” His government’s track record indicates that he has been walking in exactly the wrong direction.

Evers is the Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter at @ErinHRW.