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Western Press Review: Abu Ghurayb Prison, An Iraq Exit Strategy, And Rethinking Balkan Security

Prague, 17 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of press commentary and analysis today finds continuing debate on the abuses committed by U.S. forces at Abu Ghurayb prison in Iraq. As the first of the accused soldiers prepares to testify this week, speculation centers on whether the abuse was carried out in disregard of, or in accordance with, the official Pentagon policy on interrogations. Discussion in the press today also addresses the possibilities for a Western exit strategy in Iraq and rethinking the security framework in the Balkans.


In an analysis published today, the paper's Luke Harding expresses his skepticism that the abuses committed by U.S. forces at Iraq's Abu Ghurayb prison were merely -- in the words of U.S. President George W. Bush -- the "actions of a few" rogue soldiers. The Bush administration maintains that prison abuses were infrequent and unsanctioned, and that those responsible will be brought to account.

Statements by accused U.S. military Specialist Jeremy Sivits have thus far borne out the administration's claims. Sivits is expected to plead guilty to charges of abusing detainees and is expected to testify on 19 May that senior officials at the prison were unaware of the abuse, and that if they had known they would have disciplined the soldiers involved.

But "The Guardian's" Harding says, "The problem with this argument -- which neatly exonerates both the Pentagon and senior generals -- is that it appears not to be true." As Harding points out, Sivits' six co-defendants allege "that military interrogators at the jail encouraged and condoned the abuse. It was, they suggest, a policy sanctioned by those higher up the chain of command."

Harding cites an item in "The New Yorker" magazine this week by Seymour Hersh, who maintains that high-level Pentagon officials instituted a "special access" program that authorized certain intelligence teams "to use unconventional methods of interrogation, including the sexual humiliation of detainees, in an attempt to gain 'real-time' intelligence that could be used in the battle against Iraq's deepening insurgency."

Claims that the abuses were the actions of a few are unlikely to convince many Iraqis in any case, Harding says. For them, the scandal "is unlikely to go away until all the detainees have been released, Abu Ghraib has been bulldozed, and those really responsible for the abuse have been punished."


An editorial in the Brussels-based European edition of the paper says the constant coverage of the Abu Ghurayb prison scandal has made one thing clear: "[We] are slowly learning that these abuses were in fact the fault of a few undisciplined, poorly led soldiers. The accusation that the practices were part of the 'system,' or resulted from Army or Pentagon rules, is also being exposed as a political slur."

The accused soldiers were "derelict in many ways," the paper says. "Testimony is emerging that they indulged in sexual escapades and other behavior that any normal person would consider depraved."

The inhumane and abusive treatment of prisoners "deserves to be punished if proven in court," the paper says. "The unit's commanders should also be held responsible for its poor morale and lack of discipline."

But the paper cites the claims of U.S. military Specialist Sivits, who alleges the abuse was carried out by soldiers without the knowledge of their superiors. And this claim "directly counters the continuing effort in Washington to portray the abuses as the inevitable result of the 'climate' created by [U.S. Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld's Guantanamo rules," a reference to the official designation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as "enemy combatants." This classification renders them unprotected by the Geneva Conventions' provisions for prisoners of war.

The paper points out that requests to use "stress positions" –- forcing prisoners to hold uncomfortable postures for up to 45 minutes at a time –- were made only three times, and all three were denied. Only about 25 "exceptional interrogation" requests were made in all.

The paper says, "The U.S. holds some very dangerous people in Iraq, and it's easy to forget that the point of interrogating them is to better protect both U.S. soldiers and the Iraqi civilians that the Geneva Conventions oblige us to safeguard."


An editorial in Britain's "Sunday Telegraph" says the consequences of the U.K.-U.S. occupation of Iraq could stretch far beyond the Persian Gulf. Security in the country remains tenuous over a year after the fall of Baghdad, and the Abu Ghurayb prisoner-abuse scandal has brought us to "a perilously symbolic moment."

The paper says the risk is now "that the shame of [Abu Ghurayb], combined with the perception of intractable disorder in liberated Iraq, will hasten withdrawal by the U.S. from this desperately fragile country -- if not now, then relatively soon."

A caretaker Iraqi government is to assume power on 30 June, which could bring the world closer to seeing a withdrawal of U.S. and British troops from the country. "It is hard to exaggerate what a disaster this would be for the war on terror, for relations between America and Europe, and for global security generally," the paper says.

The EU "is pathetically incapable of enforcing its wishes militarily, or of responding meaningfully to threats such as that posed by Islamic fundamentalism," says the paper. "The bifurcation of the West into an insular America and a rhetorically noisy but militarily weak Europe would be nothing short of a catastrophe." Groups such as Al-Qaeda would flourish amid such a "new, disfigured geopolitical landscape," and would celebrate a U.S. retreat from Iraq as a victory.

There is "no alternative for America and Britain but to stay in Iraq until that country is stable and safe for democracy," says the paper. "Bleak as it is to admit it, that process may take many years and require new standards of political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. But the prospect of failure has implications far beyond the sands of Iraq. It is no exaggeration to say that the stakes could not be higher."


An editorial today observes that persistent troubles in Iraq are giving rise to calls from across the political spectrum for a de-escalation of U.S. goals in Iraq. A more realistic approach is necessary, these critics say, adding that it is time to abandon the idea that a utopian democratic regime might soon flourish in Baghdad.

But the paper says that while the critique of the U.S. administration's "shallow thinking and incompetent planning" is insightful, a troop withdrawal at this point "would be catastrophic for U.S. interests around the world and a historic victory for Islamic extremism. [If] Iraqis become convinced that the United States is prepared to leave without achieving its political objectives, those objectives will be immediately discredited, leaving civil war as the only means for resolving how the country will be governed."

The Bush administration was mistaken in believing establishing an Iraqi democracy would be quick or easy. But now that the former regime has been abolished, holding elections "offers the most pragmatic way of establishing a viable government" and is the best chance for "defeating the extremists."

The paper says an elected Iraqi government "will be a fragile and awkward entity that exercises only loose control over the country and requires long-term support by foreign troops and other outsiders. [Getting] there will require an enormous second effort by the United States, which will have to sacrifice more while somehow recruiting more support from the rest of the world. Failure is a distinct possibility." But moving toward democracy in Iraq is "a vital goal," says the paper. And at this point, it is also "the most realistic way forward."


U.S. President George W. Bush and his advisers are finding themselves in some difficulty in Iraq and are now “beseeching the same United Nations they once belittled to rescue the transition" from the old regime to some semblance of democratic rule. But the paper says at this point, "it may be beyond the UN's power to convince a skeptical world that Iraq will regain any meaningful sovereignty after June 30 if the real decisions on security and reconstruction are still made by Americans."

The paper says a "clear and coherent new course needs to be set without further delay, beginning with aggressive policy and personnel changes to undo the damage of the [Abu Ghurayb] prison scandal. The UN should be given clear authority over transitional political arrangements after June 30," and major decisions on Iraq's new constitutional and political framework should be deferred until after elections are held. In the meantime, the interim Iraqi regime should "assume control over oil revenues, economic reconstruction projects, the Iraqi police and the courts."

If the U.S. administration "is finally ready to accept international oversight and a real measure of Iraqi sovereignty, Americans may see a reduction of violence and increased peacekeeping help from other nations," says the editorial. "With June 30 rapidly approaching, Washington will soon have to choose its course."


A contribution today by Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council and Borut Grgic of the Atlantic Council says a new security framework is needed for the western Balkans that will address the region's struggles with trafficking in humans and small arms, organized crime, terrorism and weapons proliferation. Until now, the Balkans has dealt with these issues through sporadic local initiatives. But gradually, policymakers "are recognizing the need for a broader framework for Euro-Atlantic stability."

Border security must be the starting point to prevent the transit of illegal goods, say Berman and Grgic. They suggest launching maritime patrols aimed at ending trafficking in "hotbeds such as the Adriatic and Black seas." The region is also "uniquely situated to draw on the local NATO presence and, working with Romania and Bulgaria, [to] supplement existing efforts through land-based interception."

They authors says such initiatives "would do more than add an important element to NATO's strategic agenda. They would give a vital confidence-building measure to EU members uneasy, in the wake of expansion, about the commitment of the western Balkans to European security." The launch of new efforts at halting proliferation "would also help elevate the importance of the western Balkans in Washington, which is seeking international partners to help prevent the spread of WMD [weapons of mass destruction]."

The United States and the European Union "share a vested interest in helping the Balkan states come of age in terms of regional security. When they do, both sides of the Atlantic will be safer for it."


Columnist Patrick Sabatier says as the difficulties mount for the United States in Iraq, it is important for France -- which opposed the war -- to resist the temptations of schadenfreud, or taking guilty satisfaction from the difficulties experienced by others. A rout of the Anglo-American coalition from Iraq would neither increase France's safety nor make it likely that peace and freedom will soon reign where the prophets of hatred once ruled.

But the refusal to take pleasure in the coalition's defeats should not prevent one from learning the lessons of Iraq, Sabatier says. Yesterday's "hawks" have now turned on their erstwhile heroes and reproach British and American leaders for not planning sufficiently for Iraq's transformation. They rediscovered the lessons of the old strategic thinkers too late, having forgotten that before the waging of any war it is important to gauge carefully the political benefits and to plan for "the day after." The Iraq war hawks also forgot that one claims in vain to launch a war in the name of morals, or of God, or of the "Good."

Those directly responsible for the situation today, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, persist in denying their strategic errors. They try to dodge responsibility and to blame infractions on their subordinates. And yet a troop withdrawal would lead to a descent into chaos and would likely lead to a new dictatorship precipitated by civil war.

Sabatier says the only "withdrawal" that would allow for some hope of an end to the Iraq crisis would be the withdrawal of both Bush and Blair. They won't trigger this themselves by resigning, Sabatier says, but one can hope that their constituents might do it for them at the polls.