American soldiers stumble upon a secret dungeon and discover dozens of emaciated prisoners—173 of them, to be precise—who had simply vanished from the face of the Earth over the previous weeks and months.  Horrified GIs walk wide-eyed through the stinking chamber of horrors whose inmates grasp with difficulty that their ordeal is over.  Most of the latter bear obvious marks of torture as they are led into sunlight for the first time since their incarceration.

No, this is not Germany 1945, or Korea 1950, or Mogadishu 1993.  The date was November 13, 2005.  The jail in question was in a disused air-raid shelter of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior; the prisoners were mostly Sunni Arabs; and their torturers were members of the Badr Organization, a pro-Iranian Shiite militia that has been given a free hand by Bayan Jabr, the minister himself, who is also a member of the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.  The Supreme Council was at the head of the political ticket condoned by Grand Ayatollah Sistani that emerged as Iraq’s strongest political force at national elections in January 2005 and now effectively controls much of the government.

Since then, members of the Badr have spread out of their strongholds in the south and killed dozens of men in a sustained campaign of intimidation in Sunni neighborhoods.  Last June, media reports documented several instances in which Sunni men who had been detained by uniformed men in police vehicles were later found dead.  The latter are also suspected of being involved in the killing of two lawyers trying to defend Saddam Hussein and his associates.  Oppressed for decades under Saddam, Iraq’s Shiites are using the American occupation to take revenge on the Sunni community as a whole.

Sunni leader Adnan al-Dulaimi, who had complained to the government about abuses at three other Interior Ministry compounds, has called for an international inquiry.  But the United States, whose own troops have faced accusations of prisoner abuse in Iraq, has ruled out any international involvement in an inquiry, saying that the Iraqi government is up to the job.  American officials on the ground are perfectly aware that, if the investigation is left up to the likes of Bayan Jabr and his colleagues from the Supreme Council, it will be neither fair nor impartial.  They nevertheless think that it is more important to maintain the Shiites’ cooperativeness, as the entire Iraqi operation is turning into a nightmare, than to make too much fuss.

Their cynicism is understandable.  If one group of Iraqis is torturing another—and torture is the right term, rather than the euphemistic abuse so beloved of the media and defense bureaucracy—they are only doing what the denizens of the Middle East have been doing to one another for millennia.  Our friends Egypt and Saudi Arabia torture prisoners, as do our potential enemies Syria and Iran.  Turkey does it but pretends otherwise for the sake of “Europe.”  Robert Fisk’s latest book, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), contains a sickening list of electric torture, burnt genitals, sawed-off heads, and mutilated corpses that is not for the faint of heart.

Such practices cannot be eradicated short of uprooting the political culture that breeds them.  The task is formidable because of the burden of history and because torture is not deemed sinful per se in the Islamic world.  The Koran is full of Muhammad’s lovingly elaborate descriptions of agonizing torture; stonings; amputations and decapitations of infidels, sinners, and political dissidents (“those who spread mischief in the land”).  In a culture devoid of any sense of natural morality, torture is OK if it is made legal—by the Prophet or by some other authority—and if it serves a good cause.

The United States should not tolerate Shiite mistreatment of Iraq’s Sunnis, not because we expect to change the Iraqis’ hearts and minds—that battle is lost and had never been winnable on present form—but because we need to engage the Sunni community.  The Sunnis must be given a viable stake in postoccupation Iraq in order to enable U.S. troops to come home.  Only a deal with the Sunnis may end the insurgency and create conditions for a withdrawal with some honor and dignity.  That deal will necessitate the use of American political pressure to uphold Sunni interests vis-à-vis Iraq’s Shiite-Kurdish alliance.  If the Sunnis agree to enforce a cease-fire in their provinces and clean up Al Qaeda in Iraq, the price is well worth paying.