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U.S.: Scandal Over Abuse Of Prisoners In Iraq, Afghanistan Growing

  • Andrew Tully

Revelations about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq by U.S. forces continue to enrage Arabs, Muslims, and others around the world, and are growing into a major scandal in the United States, as well. A U.S. Senate committee plans hearings on how the practice could have gone unchecked. Six U.S. military prison guards in Iraq have so far been charged, and seven officers have been disciplined. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army says it has conducted investigations into the deaths of 25 prisoners held by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2002.

Washington, 5 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Having found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush is justifying the war on new grounds -- that a cruel dictator can no longer threaten his own people or his neighbors.

During a speech on 3 May at a re-election campaign rally in Michigan, Bush said: "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power. The world is better off because he sits in a prison cell. Because we acted, torture rooms are closed."

Bush did not mention the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghurayb prison near Baghdad, illustrated by graphic photographs that the perpetrators never expected would become public. But for the past week, his administration has been trying to limit the political and diplomatic damage that the scandal is causing.

U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice yesterday apologized to the Arab world in an interview on the Al-Arabiyah television network. She said the United States is "deeply sorry" for what happened to the prisoners and regrets the humiliation caused to the detainees and their families. Bush himself is expected to address the subject today with the same channel, as well with U.S.-sponsored Al-Hurra television.

Hundreds of Iraqis today demonstrated against the mistreatment of prisoners outside Abu Ghurayb.

For the most part, Bush, his top aides, and military commanders have stressed that the problem is limited to a few bad soldiers and is not indicative of the behavior of the vast majority of U.S. troops.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last night: "The actions of the soldiers in those photographs are totally unacceptable and un-American. Any who engaged in such action let down their comrades who serve honorably each day, and they let down their country."

Some believe the mistreatment may have been the result of willful negligence on the part of those officers responsible for the prisoners.
The new U.S. commander overseeing military prisons in Iraq has announced reforms of prisoner treatment. Major General Geoffrey Miller said U.S. troops have stopped putting hoods over the heads of detainees. He also said the use of interrogation tactics such as sleep deprivation or forcing detainees to sit or stand in uncomfortable positions must now be approved by an upper-level officer.

James Ross, the senior legal adviser to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in New York, told RFE/RL that a certain amount of pressure to interrogate prisoners is acceptable under the Geneva Conventions. But he said that treating prisoners well also gets good results. "One way is, actually, making them feel comfortable," he said. "And one way is to make use of [techniques] that are more stressful but do not reach the level of improper treatment."

Kenneth Allard agrees. Allard is a retired U.S. Army colonel who worked as an intelligence officer in Europe and now teaches at Georgetown University in Washington. Allard told RFE/RL that gaining a prisoner's willing cooperation is by far the best way to get reliable intelligence. He said cruelty merely prompts a prisoner to tell his interrogators what they want to hear, whether it is true or not.

Allard believes responsibility for the problems at Abu Ghurayb does not rest only with a few low-ranking jailers, but with their superiors, too. He said any supervising officer who claims not to have known about the abuse is either lying or not doing his or her duty. "The essence of what you're supposed to do with soldiers is to command and to lead them -- ensure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished," he said.

Some believe the mistreatment may have been the result of willful negligence on the part of those officers responsible for the prisoners. Alistair Hodgett, the Washington spokesman for the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International, told RFE/RL: "There has been a possible encouragement of ill-treatment at the highest levels through the way some senior administration officials have talked about how the Geneva Conventions may not be relevant the way they once were. And I think it's important to look beyond any individual guard and ask, 'Did those ultimately responsible for U.S. conduct in its treatment of detainees do everything they could to protect against ill-treatment?' And we think they come up short."

Allard said responsibility for the behavior of U.S. prison guards goes up the U.S. military chain of command to include General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, because the abuse, ultimately, was done on their watch.

Both Rumsfeld and Myers said that as recently as 1-2 May they had not seen a report about the abuses that was prepared in February. A Pentagon spokesman explained that such reports must first make their way through lower-ranking officials so that every relevant officer can ensure the report is fair and accurate, before being seen by officials like Myers or Rumsfeld.

Allard dismissed that explanation as unworthy of U.S. military leaders. He said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not have to wait to see any report -- if he thinks it is important enough.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's chief law-enforcement officer, Major General Donald Ryder, said the military has investigated the deaths of 25 prisoners held by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2002. He said three deaths were ruled to be murders committed by U.S. soldiers, while another killing was ruled to be a justifiable homicide. One more killing was committed by a CIA contractor and has been handed over to the U.S. attorney general. Ten cases are still under investigation.

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence plans to hold a closed hearing on the abuse today. Some senators, such as Arizona Republican John McCain, are calling for further hearings on the abuses. "We need to have a hearing as soon as possible with Secretary Rumsfeld testifying, and other service secretaries, if necessary, as to how this whole situation evolved, what action is being taken, and what further action needs to be taken to prevent a recurrence of this terrible situation," McCain said.

Eventually, Allard said, the public will know just what senior military officials such as Rumsfeld and Myers knew about the abuse of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, when they knew it, and how they initially handled the issue.

And, Allard said, regardless of their initial response, it is imperative they respond properly now. He recalled that the United States has experienced intelligence lapses before, such as failing to anticipate the attacks of 11 September 2001, and wrongly concluding that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He said the "intelligence failure" over the abuse of prisoners in Iraq once again has broad implications for U.S. foreign policy.

"This is one more intelligence failure, and we've gotten so used to that over the last several years," Allard said. "But it now has a strategic significance in the sense that those photographs have literally gone all over the world. There's the inflaming effect that it has on Arab public opinion, on Iraqi public opinion, on our allies, on various international bodies and, last but not least, on what the American people have a right to expect out of their soldiers -- and their leaders."
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