TOPICS : From Fallujah to photos, one fiasco after another

Jim Lobe

When in 1970 ‘Life’ magazine published photos taken by Senator Tom Harkin, then a lowly congressional aide, of the infamous “tiger cages” in which suspected Viet Cong men, women and even children were kept secretly by the US-run South Vietnamese prison system, it was another nail in the coffin of a conflict on which most of the US public had already soured.

Judging from the outrage expressed here so far, the broadcast and publication of the photos of physical and sexual abuse of prisoners by their US guards in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad are also having a demoralising effect, but the impact on the broader US “war on terrorism” may be felt more acutely abroad.

The photos, which show the taunting by female guards of naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners, who are also arranged in explicitly sexual positions, were first broadcast by CBS TV’s ‘Sixty Minutes II’ last Thursday. They, as well as an internal report by a two-star general about abuses committed by prison guards and military intelligence, were also the subject of a lengthy article in the ‘New Yorker’ magazine by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

The 53-page report, by Army Major Gen Antonio Taguba, called for disciplinary action against 10 members of the Army, including a brigadier general, a colonel and two civilian contractors hired by the military to help conduct interrogations, and possible criminal prosecutions against at least six people.

According to Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Gen Richard Myers, the abuses were isolated and committed by “just a handful” of soldiers, and should not be seen as representative of the military’s overall performance. But Taguba’s report, which was also obtained by the ‘Los Angeles Times’, described the abuses as “systemic and illegal” and suggested that the problem might be far-reaching. While Taguba’s report did not directly address abuses committed by prison authorities outside Iraq, he suggested that similar practices might have been used against other prisoners both in Iraq and elsewhere.

In that connection, his report noted that a team from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba visited Iraq eight months ago to see how better intelligence could be acquired from detainees held there. The team, which was headed by the Guantanamo commander, recommended that MP guards act as “an enabler for interrogation”. More than 60 per cent of the detainees at Abu Ghraib, according to Taguba, were innocent civilians who had simply been caught up in sweeps and were thus of little or no intelligence value. The notion that humiliating practices against prisoners might be practised beyond Abu Ghraib was endorsed by Amnesty International (AI) on Friday. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also suggested the behaviour of the US soldiers in the photos “suggests they felt they had nothing to hide from their superiors”. The New York-based group also pointed to the Pentagon’s failure to date to respond to allegations of serious abuses committed by US forces in Afghanistan, including beatings, severe sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold and at least two deaths in custody. — IPS