Supposedly it’s the biggest leak of U.S. intel in history. Normally I’d wait to blog it until I’ve had a chance to read all the articles, but we’re talking about a dozen or more stories here; instead of waiting, follow these links to the NYT, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera, all of whom have been reviewing the documents for weeks, and go from there. Some of the stories deal with grim strategic realities that we’re all already painfully aware of — e.g., Syrian border troops have been smuggling weapons and personnel to the Sunni insurgency in western Iraq for years, just as Iran’s spent years providing weapons and personnel (including Hezbollah trainers) to Shiite militias in the eastern part of the country. But if you only have time for one piece, this one at the Guardian about Iraqi security using Saddam-era methods on prisoners is the one to read.

This is the impact of Frago 242. A frago is a “fragmentary order” which summarises a complex requirement. This one, issued in June 2004, about a year after the invasion of Iraq, orders coalition troops not to investigate any breach of the laws of armed conflict, such as the abuse of detainees, unless it directly involves members of the coalition. Where the alleged abuse is committed by Iraqi on Iraqi, “only an initial report will be made … No further investigation will be required unless directed by HQ”

The systematic viciousness of the old dictatorship when Saddam Hussein’s security agencies enforced order without any regard for law continues, reinforced by the chaotic savagery of the new criminal, political and sectarian groups which have emerged since the invasion in 2003 and which have infiltrated some police and army units, using Iraq’s detention cells for their private vendettas…

There is no question of the coalition forces not knowing that their Iraqi comrades are doing this: the leaked war logs are the internal records of those forces…

Numerous logs show individual members of the coalition making genuine attempts to stop the abuse. Since 2006 the coalition has had military transition teams, known as Mitts, working alongside Iraqi military units; and police transition teams, PTTs, embedded with local police. These teams are recorded on multiple occasions making unannounced spot checks at Iraqi security bases and finding torture in progress. “Captain Walker and 1st Lieutenant Ziemba … caught Captain Hassan and Sgt Alaa by surprise … In the office there was what appeared to be a battery with open ended wires … Before entering the office, Capt Walker and 1Lt Siemba heard what sounded like an individual being hit and moaning. The detainee was sitting in the centre of the room sobbing. They stopped the suspected abuse.”

In other words, per Frago 242, if Iraqi troops or cops were doing the abusing, it was the Iraqi government’s problem to deal with them. Al Jazeera notes that, since Iraq officially became sovereign again on June 30, 2004, there was no legal obligation for occupying forces to police Iraqi security. But then there’s this:

One could argue, of course, that the decision to look the other way represents a clear moral failing – and a conscious decision to undermine US’ own stated goal of nation-building. The US has spent tens of millions of dollars to develop prisons, courts, and the “rule of law” in Iraq. But the leaked documents show that Iraq’s security forces routinely violated the most basic rights of detainees in their custody, assaulting them, threatening their families, occasionally even raping or murdering them.

More importantly, many of the detainee abuse reports suggest that the US knowingly violated the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

The convention – which the United States ratified in 1994 – forbids signatories from transferring a detainee to other countries “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”.

The Times’s write-up of the torture documents notes that coalition troops “often intervened” to stop abuse when they saw it. And yet:

Even when Americans found abuse and reported it, Iraqis often did not act. One report said a police chief refused to file charges “as long as the abuse produced no marks.” Another police chief told military inspectors that his officers engaged in abuse “and supported it as a method of conducting investigations.”

It is a frightening portrait of violence by any standards, but particularly disturbing because Iraq’s army and police are central to President Obama’s plan to draw down American troops in Iraq. Iraqi forces are already the backbone of security in Iraq, now that American combat troops are officially gone, and are also in charge of running its prisons.

For a broad overview of key revelations from the other documents, including the claim that the docs record 15,000 previously unknown Iraqi civilian deaths, see this Guardian summary. (Note the bit at the end about Wikileaks redacting the names of Iraqis to prevent reprisals against them. That was one of the Pentagon’s biggest worries in all this.) The last giant Wikileaks document drop was a snoozer because they didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. No big bombshell = no real effect on foreign policy. This one, however, might have an effect in two key ways. One: As the Times notes, it makes it much harder for Obama to argue that Iraq doesn’t need us because it’s ready to police itself. According to the Guardian, incidents of abuse are recorded in the documents as recently as last December, so the problem can’t be dismissed as some long-solved remnant of Iraq’s darkest days in 2006. Two, and more importantly: If this news breaks big in Iraq, god only knows what it’s going to do to the political situation there. The Sunnis are already disenchanted, and Maliki — who, as PM, presumably presided during most of the abuse incidents described in the documents — is cuddling up to Iran and Sadr. (In fact, as noted at that last link, Sadr reportedly wants control of Iraq’s defense ministry. Just the man we need to get Iraqi troops to clean up their act.) Throw this grenade about government security forces using Saddam tactics into the mix and … what now? Maybe, maybe, it’ll make Maliki so toxic that the Kurds will side with Allawi instead of him to form a government. That would be good for the country insofar as it would isolate the Sadrists and bring the Sunnis into the government as part of a secularist, multi-sectarian coalition. But that’s the best possible outcome. I don’t want to think about the worst one.

Update: People are murmuring on Twitter about the fact that the docs implicate Hezbollah (via Iran) in training the Shiite militias. Quote:

The reports contain numerous references to Iranian agents, but the documents generally describe a pattern in which the Quds Force has sought to maintain a low profile in Iraq by arranging for fighters from Hezbollah in Lebanon to train Iraqi militants in Iran or by giving guidance to Iraqi militias who do the fighting with Iranian financing and weapons.

We’ve been covering this angle since practically the beginning of Hot Air. A short sample of posts over the years:

Nov. 30, 2006: Smoking guns: Iranians backing the Shiite militias in Iraq
March 21, 2007: Dissident: Top Iranian leaders running secret camps to train Iraq militias
April 12, 2007: US: Iraqi militias train in Iran
July 1, 2007: You don’t say: U.S. captures top Hezbollah bombmaker in Iraq
Aug. 19, 2007: Mahdi Army members confess: We’re training in Lebanon with Hezbollah
April 29, 2008: McClatchy: Most powerful man in Iraq is … leader of Iran’s Quds Force
May 5, 2008: Military sources: Hezbollah training Iraqi militias in Iran
July 1, 2008: AP: Hezbollah’s training Shiite militias — inside Iraq
Aug. 15, 2008: Iran training Iraqi hit squads

No wonder that Petraeus, during his testimony before Congress in September 2007, accused Iran of wanting to build an Iraqi version of Hezbollah.

Update: From the Daily Beast, expect this clip to get wide circulation tomorrow.