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Iraq: Scandal Widens Over Prisoner Abuse

  • Charles Recknagel

http://gdb.rferl.org/A0538564-3D06-4721-B70C-0C591EADAE56_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/A0538564-3D06-4721-B70C-0C591EADAE56_mw800_mh600.jpg The scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some U.S. soldiers continues to grow. There are new suggestions that Washington may have known about such incidents months ago, but did not take remedial action. Today, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is due to answer questions before the U.S. Congress as some opposition lawmakers demand he be fired for irresponsibility.

Prague, 7 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison by some U.S. soldiers is becoming a major political test for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

The furor around the abuse -- documented in photographs first exposed by the media last week -- has grown markedly in recent hours. Among the developments are new suggestions that Washington may have known about such incidents months ago but did not take remedial action.

The mounting suggestions that top administration officials may have been aware of prisoner abuse in Iraq long before the media exposed it has caused a political storm in Washington that again puts at center stage the administration's ability to manage events in Iraq.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that it has been monitoring conditions at Abu Ghurayb since U.S. forces began using the prison last year. The Geneva-based organization says it regularly reports what it finds to U.S. authorities.

ICRC spokeswoman Antonella Notari said yesterday, "We started visiting the Abu Ghurayb prison ever since the Abu Ghurayb prison has been used by the U.S. forces to intern Iraqi nationals and other nationals. And after every visit, the ICRC delegates meet with the prison authorities directly and speak with them about their findings and make recommendations and then put their findings and recommendations in writing and send them to their superiors. So we have regularly reported on our findings and observations in Abu Ghurayb to the U.S. authorities."

She refused to detail what ICRC inspectors have uncovered in their monitoring. The ICRC reports its findings only to top prison authorities, in exchange for continued access to prison sites.

The ICRC statement comes as many U.S. daily newspapers report that the Bush administration was made aware as early as January of conditions at the prison by U.S. Army officials.

"The New York Times" wrote today that "Pentagon officials said the photographs were described in general terms to [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld in mid-January, shortly after a soldier gave them to Army officials." The paper quote Rumsfeld as saying earlier this week that he had read only parts of the report on the case, including its conclusions.

It is not immediately clear whether that report was tied to an investigation into conditions at Abu Ghurayb being carried out at much the same time by U.S. Army General Antonio Taguba, who is the deputy commander of coalition support services.

The "Los Angeles Times" reported earlier this week that the Taguba investigation of incidents at Abu Ghurayb between October and December of last year was completed in March. The paper says that his report concluded that senior officers "failed to comply with established regulations, policies, and command directives in preventing detainee abuses."

The mounting suggestions that top administration officials may have been aware of prisoner abuse in Iraq long before the media exposed it has caused a political storm in Washington that again puts at center stage the administration's ability to manage events in Iraq.

Rumsfeld is due to answer questions before the U.S. Congress today as some opposition lawmakers demand he be fired for irresponsibility. The photographs of prisoner abuse have tarnished the image of the U.S. military at a time when U.S. soldiers need to win the trust of the Iraqi population in order to maintain security in the country and avoid new combat casualties.

Rumsfeld has condemned the abuse, but has strongly defended the Pentagon's response to the prison allegations, saying the investigation was being handled methodically and needed time to conclude.

One Democratic Party congressman, James McDermott, charged yesterday that the Defense Department's treatment of the scandal shows the administration does not "care about the troops" and called for a change of leadership. "[Invading Iraq] was a war of choice. We didn't have to go, nobody was attacking us. It's clear we weren't in danger. [Bush administration officials] chose a day to go and so they went, whether they were ready or not. They didn't care about the troops. Our troops are being badly used by rotten leadership. They should go," he said.

But many members of Congress from Bush's Republican Party have rejected the calls for dismissing top officials as politically motivated. The Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, said yesterday, "They [the Democrats] want to win the White House more than they want to win the war, and our enemies know it."

Bush this week is reported to have privately chastised Rumsfeld for failing to inform him in a timely manner of the prisoner-abuse scandal. But he has nonetheless defended the defense secretary against outside criticism and rejected calls for his replacement. "Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good secretary of defense,” Bush said. “Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars, and he is an important part of my cabinet and he'll stay in my cabinet."

Bush said yesterday he had told Jordan's King Abdullah during a meeting in Washington that he was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and by their families. The scandal has outraged public opinion across the Arab world at a time when the administration is trying to build Arab and international support for its Iraq strategy.

In Iraq itself, the photographs of abuse at Abu Ghurayb have stoked widespread public sentiment that U.S. soldiers treat ordinary Iraqis in an arbitrary and, at times, humiliating fashion.

On any day, a crowd of people can be found outside Abu Ghurayb pleading with guards for news about relatives inside. The relatives complain that they receive no information from officials.

RFE/RL stringer Sami Alkhoja recently spoke outside the prison with a woman from the central city of Baquba who said her husband and three sons have been detained for nearly half a year. Alia'a Abed Ali said she had no information about their condition or the charges against them.

"By God, we haven't done anything," she said. "They came to us at half past three in the morning. They took them and went away. And they were barefoot and in their pajamas. They've been inside for six months. And this month is the sixth month and I haven't seen them yet. If I had seen them, then everything would be OK. [Their names are] Abbas al-Ikaby, Issam, and Ahmad Abbas, and Diar Abbas -- four of them. By God, [the Americans] didn't find anything. God is my witness. They found one assault rifle and that's for protecting the house. And another assault rifle from another house because we are four houses and we are scared. And you know what the security situation is like now [in Iraq]."

U.S. forces patrolling towns like Baquba in the restive Sunni triangle region have conducted surprise sweep operations to detain suspected insurgents. Washington says such operations are effective in disrupting guerrilla networks and preventing attacks on U.S. forces.

Visits inside Abu Ghurayb to independently observe the treatment of prisoners are not possible for journalists. So like most Iraqis, correspondents get their information from released detainees.

Alkhoja recently pursued a bus of freed prisoners leaving Abu Ghurayb to stop it and talk to a group of men being returned to their home village near Kirkuk. The men said they had not been abused in prison but complained of being unable to communicate with relatives outside.

One man who gave his name only as Abed said: "You know what prison life is, it's hard. No, they didn't torture us but the food is not of a satisfactory standard, you don't get filled up. And the visitors' appointments are set far into the future. And I have eight kids and I've left them and I don't know how they are. I am a peasant. I don't own anything. I've been in prison for four months and I haven't seen my children. And I don't know if they're alive or dead. And my mother, if she is dead or alive either, or what was the reason I was arrested. I don't know the reason."

The scandal over the abuse of some prisoners erupted when photographs became public of naked Iraqis stacked as a human pyramid and in other humiliating positions with smiling U.S. soldiers next to them.

U.S. officials have called the behavior of the soldiers abhorrent and promised a full investigation into the extent of the incidents.
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