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Western Press Review: Abuses, Atrocities In Iraq Dominate Commentary

Prague, 13 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Rarely does a single topic dominate commentary in the press reviewed by RFE/RL as the topic of the Iraq war -- its abuses and atrocities -- dominates today.


The London-based "The Times" says in an editorial that the term "revenge" does not apply to the beheading of American Nick Berg. The editorial says: "The barbaric, harrowing and sadistic killing of Nick Berg, not so much recorded on as wallowed in through a website, has prompted outrage globally."

The crime, says "The Times," was exacerbated by a fusion of modern technology and atavistic brutality: "The brutality might not, alas, be original, but the fusion of the most base methods of killing with modern means of communication has a uniquely sickening quality. The condemnation has, however, been qualified by some with the absurd claim that this murder was an act of 'revenge' for the treatment of Iraqis in Abu [Ghurayb] prison, or that there is a degree of moral equivalence operating in Iraq, or that this vile execution constitutes a form of political message and an understandable aspect of strategy."

The paper continues: "The decapitation of Mr. Berg was not 'revenge' for the awful events at Abu [Ghurayb] any more than the slashing of Daniel Pearl's throat in Pakistan in February 2002 was a pre-emptive protest against a future decision to topple Saddam Hussein, or the shooting of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, an Italian security guard, last month was a considered challenge to his country's foreign policy. Mr. Berg [disappeared] on April 9. He was not seized on the assumption that there might be a scandal relating to American troops a few weeks later. His life was considered to be disposable by his merciless captors."


The "International Herald Tribune" editorializes today on an accusation that the White House and Pentagon are seeking to deflect responsibility for Abu Ghurayb prisoner abuse onto officers and soldiers in the field.

The newspaper says: "That cynical approach was on display Tuesday morning [11 May] in the second Abu [Ghurayb] hearing in the [U.S.] Senate, a body that finally seemed to be assuming its responsibility for overseeing the executive branch after a year of silently watching the bungled Iraq occupation."

The editorial says: "All the senators, government officials and generals assembled in that hearing room Tuesday could not figure out who had been in charge at Abu [Ghurayb] and which rules applied to the Iraqi prisoners. How were untrained reservists who had been plucked from their private lives to guard the prisoners supposed to have managed it?"

It continues: "[General Ricardo] Sanchez [the top U.S. military commander in Iraq] did give some misguided orders involving the Abu [Ghurayb] prison and prisoners in general. But the deeply flawed mission in which he participates is the responsibility of the Bush administration. It was [U.S. President George W.] Bush and [Secretary of State Donald] Rumsfeld, not Sanchez, who failed to anticipate the violence and chaos that followed the invasion of Iraq, and sent American soldiers out to handle it without the necessary resources, manpower and training."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" takes an opposing view today. In an editorial, the newspaper celebrates what it calls "the good sense of the American people" in seeing the Abu Ghurayb scandals in reasonable perspective.

The editorial says: "In almost inverse proportion to the bizarre perceptions of political reality that obsess those inside the Beltway, recent polls show a 2-to-1 majority of Americans rejecting any move to oust the secretary of defense. To put it another way, even amid one of the worst weeks the Bush administration has endured in Iraq, the American people have digested the disgusting photographs from Abu Ghraib and put them in proper perspective."

The editorial concludes: "If we end up losing in Iraq, it won't be because the American people were too soft or unwilling to stick with the president and his team when the going got tough. The public understands something the pundit and political classes have mostly forgotten: We're still in a war. Our enemies understand that too. And we trust that even the most political part of the White House understands that the bigger challenge it faces is not who wins in November but who wins in Iraq."


Britain's "The Guardian" editorializes that the best Western response to the gruesome Berg slaying would be for the United States and Britain to rededicate themselves to strict respect for human rights.

The newspaper says: "If occupation soldiers from all nations in Iraq are to avoid the appalling fate of the executed American captive Nick Berg, then a more scrupulous and vigorous approach to the enforcement of human rights would not merely be right but also a form of protection for occupied and occupier alike. This is, however, an exceptionally difficult challenge for the United States, in particular, to fulfill. Partly this is because, as members of Congress were due to be shown last night, the scale of its own abuses shows so little sign of diminishing.

"Partly it is because the United States is simply the central protagonist in the whole drama. None of this is in any way to diminish the inhuman treatment meted out to Mr. Berg. But the United States does not bring a solution to the spiraling crisis in Iraq a single step nearer by even threatening, much less carrying out, revenge attacks for the killing of Mr. Berg. The United States desperately needs a strategy, which returns respect for human rights to the center of its purposes in Iraq. Yet a nation that refuses to embrace international human rights laws and institutions -- and which has an active policy of placing its captives so far outside the ambit of the law -- is not in a strong position to do what so clearly needs to be done."


An editorial in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" today joins "The Wall Street Journal Europe" in urging that the abuses in Iraq be viewed, as the commentaries say, "in perspective."

"The Daily Telegraph" says: "If anything could have been calculated to put the torture scandal in Abu [Ghurayb] prison into perspective, it was the video of hooded and masked Al-Qaeda terrorists beheading an American civilian. The executioners were shown shouting 'Allahu akbar' ('God is great') as their victim died. This hideous image has reminded Americans of why they are fighting a war against terrorism and what kind of foe they are up against. The enemy even has a face: The execution was supposedly carried out by Osama bin Laden's henchman Abu al-Zarqawi."

The editorial concludes: "There will no doubt be further attempts by insurgents to wreck the peaceful transition to self-government on June 30. The one certainty in this fluid situation, however, is that the coalition cannot compromise with the foreign terrorists in Iraq, such as al-Zarqawi, who are trying to foment a jihad against the West. Nor should attempts to assuage Arab indignation about the torture of prisoners obscure the need to isolate and penalize state sponsors of terrorism. George W. Bush was thus right to impose sanctions on Syria yesterday.

"If the coalition stands firm in Iraq, while seeking out Al-Qaeda at home and abroad, this war on terror can -- indeed, must -- be won."


"The New York Times" columnist Thomas L. Friedman says he once believed that the governing team of U.S. President George W. Bush believed, as Friedman himself did, that the Iraq war was too important to be enmeshed in politics.

He writes: "I assumed the Bush officials were doing the same. I was wrong. They were always so slow to change course because confronting their mistakes didn't just involve confronting reality, but their own politics."

Friedman says: "Why, in the face of rampant looting in the war's aftermath, which dug us into such a deep and costly hole, wouldn't Mr. Rumsfeld put more troops into Iraq? Politics. First of all, Rummy wanted to crush once and for all the Powell doctrine, which says you fight a war like this only with overwhelming force."

"Why, in the face of the Abu [Ghurayb] travesty, wouldn't the administration make some uniquely American gesture? Because these folks have no clue how to export hope."

The commentary continues: "And, of course, why did the president praise Mr. Rumsfeld rather than fire him? Because Karl Rove says to hold the conservative base, you must always appear to be strong, decisive and loyal. It is more important that the president appear to be true to his team than that America appear to be true to its principles. Here's the new Rummy Defense: 'I am accountable. But the little guys were responsible. I was just giving orders.'"

Friedman writes: "Add it all up, and you see how we got so off track in Iraq, why we are dancing alone in the world -- and why our president, who has a strong moral vision, has no moral influence."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" columnist Albert R. Hunt says that Rumsfeld should not be dismissed over the Abu Ghurayb horrors. Hunt writes that there are more basic reasons for casting him loose. The columnist says: "Sacking Don Rumsfeld for the Abu [Ghurayb] prison tortures would be a bit like sending [American gangster] Al Capone away for income-tax evasion. It's not the offense on which he should be judged."

Hunt writes: "Mr. Rumsfeld should be judged on his three-and-a-half year tenure at the Pentagon. Contrary to the glowing portrait painted by the White House the past few days, what that reveals is an increasingly demoralized military stretched beyond its limits -- the Army War College says the Army is near its 'breaking point' -- and a Pentagon-run, post-Saddam Iraq, that has turned into one of the tragic miscalculations of contemporary American foreign policy."

Hunt writes: "Today, the Army, with the quagmire of Iraq, is charged with a mission that outstrips its resources; there are severe problems with parts and materials, and a growing number of flag officers are contemptuous of Mr. Rumsfeld's leadership. The president sworn in next January will inherit a military considerably more fragile than the one left by Bill Clinton."


Author Helen Cobben writes from Charlottesville in Virginia that the abuses at Abu Ghurayb clearly were not merely the work of a few bad apples. Under the headline, "A Pattern of Culpability in Iraq," she comments: "They were part of a much broader pattern in which, under regulations promulgated by the Pentagon, service members were routinely allowed to keep prisoners hooded and naked, to force prisoners to maintain stressful poses for hours on end, and to deprive them of sleep for lengthy periods. Indeed, such actions were even encouraged by Pentagon policymakers, if they would help to 'condition' suspects to cooperate in interrogations."

The writer says also: "It is not just in Arab and Muslim countries that people and governments have expressed outrage over the abuses. It has been heard from Europe and elsewhere, too. The Bush administration's apparent tolerance, and even encouragement, of these abuses has wiped out the U.S. ability to claim leadership in the worldwide movement for human rights and democracy."

The commentary says: "Many human rights experts consider the economic and governance overhauls to be a contravention of The Hague Conventions that regulate the laws of war. Many of [top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq] Mr. [L. Paul] Bremer's steps were quite illegal, and they also proved politically counterproductive. Instead of laying the foundation for a robust, pro-Western democracy, they fanned suspicions among Iraqis that Washington's true goals included control of their country's oil industry and other pillars of its economy. The decision to use foreign contractors to do jobs that Iraq's own people and companies were capable of doing kept Iraqi unemployment very high, while further fueling fears of a foreign takeover."


Columnist Maureen Dowd writes that "the administration's demented quest to conquer Arab hearts and minds has dissolved in a torrent of pornography denigrating other parts of the Arab anatomy. George Bush, who swept into office on a cloud of moral umbrage, now has his own sex scandal -- one with far greater implications than titillating cigar jokes."

Dowd writes: "The problem, of course, is that the war in Iraq started with lies -- that Saddam's WMD were endangering our security and that Saddam was linked to Al-Qaeda and 9/11.

"In a public relations move that cheapens the heroism of soldiers, the Pentagon merged the medals for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, giving the G.W.O.T. medal, for Global War on Terrorism, in both wars to reinforce the idea that we had to invade Iraq to quell terrorism. The truth is that our invasion of Iraq spurred terrorism there and around the world.

"That initial deception -- and headlong rush to throw off international conventions and old alliances, and namby-pamby institutions like the UN and the Red Cross -- led straight to the abuse of Abu Ghraib. Now the question is whether the CIA tortured Al-Qaeda operatives.

"Officials blurred the lines to justify ideological decisions, calling every Iraqi who opposed us a 'terrorist'; conducting rough interrogations, perhaps to find the nonexistent WMD so they would not look foolish; rolling all opposition into one scary terrorist ball that did not require sensitivity to the Geneva Conventions or 'humanitarian do-gooders,' to use the phrase of Senator James Inhofe, a Republican."


"The Washington Post" published today a commentary by Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Roth says the sexual humiliation of Abu Ghurayb diverts attention from other abuses that "the highest levels of government" sanctioned, known as "stress and duress" techniques.

Roth writes: "Major General Geoffrey D. Miller announced last week that certain stress interrogation techniques will no longer be used in Iraq. That's a useful first step. President Bush should now ban all forms of 'stress and duress' interrogation, in Iraq and elsewhere. Various noncoercive methods, from inducements to trickery, can still be used, as able interrogators have done for decades. And no one contends that detention centers should be country clubs. But the deliberate ratcheting up of pain, suffering and humiliation as an interrogation technique must be stopped. It is wrong itself, and it leads to further atrocities."