May 6, 2004, 13:56


By Michael Jansen

It is ironic that following the fall of the Baathist regime, George Bush should have said, "...there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq". In April, the bloodiest and cruellest month since last year's war, it became clear that all three of these sites of shame Bush said were abolished have been recreated by the occupation authorities.

It was very clear from the first days of the US-British onslaught that the Iraqis would fare badly under the rule of these two Western powers. Iraqi combatants and civilians taken prisoner were slammed to the ground, soldiers' boots on their heads. Detainees were stripped to their underwear, their hands bound behind them with lengths of plastic ropes which dig into the flesh, and hooded with heavy bags. Iraqi houses were targeted in the middle of the night by troops searching for members of the resistance and weapons. Doors were kicked in and families terrorised. Men were hauled off and disappeared for weeks and months. Little effort was made to trace them, so relatives would not know whether they were alive or dead. Such treatment, modelled on Israel's methods of dealing with Palestinians, is not only wholly unnecessary but also leads, ineluctably, to more serious maltreatment and torture in an officially sanctioned "escalating abuse syndrome".

Thanks to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker, the world has learnt that the torture chambers in the US-refurbished but still notorious Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad are now run by US military inquisitors who employ a variety of cruel and humiliating methods to extract information from detainees. Military Police Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commandant of Abu Ghraib and Iraq's other prisons and holding facilities, said that the interrogation section of Abu Ghraib was off limits to personnel not engaged in this work, including herself. Nevertheless, ordinary soldier-warders were encouraged by military intelligence to "soften up" prisoners held in other blocs ahead of their stint with interrogators.

Amongst the abuses inflicted on detainees were sleep deprivation, remaining for long periods standing or bound in uncomfortable positions, confinement in closed compartments, nakedness, being subjected to deafening music, and prolonged isolation.

From these, as it were, largely hands-off means of pressuring, it is a short step to administering beatings, sexual abuse, and compelling prisoners to do unacceptable things to themselves and to each other.

This allows disoriented, homesick troopers to alleviate their own resentments by inflicting suffering on Iraqis, and soldiers with psychological and emotional problems to act out their aggressions and nasty fantasies by humiliating the Iraqis.

In testimony to US military investigators and The New York Times, Haidar Sabban Abed, of Nasiriyah, one of the Iraqis photographed while being brutalised by US troops, said that he was never interrogated or charged. He and several others were chosen for harsh treatment after a jailyard scuffle. This seems to show that any prisoner could be target of abusive soldiery.

In today's Abu Ghraib prison the "rape rooms" could be anywhere ordinary troopers chose to abuse Iraqis under the orders of military intelligence or at their own initiative. Having been given orders to inflict suffering, soldiers gained the feeling that they could do whatever they pleased with impunity. Even when they do not have orders, soldiers are encouraged to harm all Iraqis by the fact that orders exist with respect to some. Detainees were seen as objects rather than human beings deserving of respect. Abusers believed they could rely on the standard excuse given by military men called to explain their conduct: "I was only acting under orders."

In the US armed forces - like in the Israeli army - there is a well developed "culture of impunity". While the Pentagon and the military command pledge to "investigate" incidents of mistreatment, it hardly ever produces public reports or prosecutes perpetrators. At present, 23 cases of death in US custody are being investigated in Iraq and Afghanistan. The culture of impunity is reinforced by the refusal of both the US and Israel to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court when charges of war crimes or genocide are raised against their citizens.

By contrast, British troops accused of misconduct could be brought before the court because their government has accepted its jurisdiction. The US has carried matters further, by insisting that its soldiers deployed abroad should never be prosecuted under the laws and in the courts where they are based. The US viceroy of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, has been pressing Iraq's interim Governing Council for many months to conclude a status of forces agreement governing the deployment of US forces in Iraq. Having failed to extract such a document from the council, Washington can be expected to press the UN Security Council to legalise the presence of foreign forces following the June 30 cosmetic transfer of "sovereignty" to Iraqis. If no such legal protection is arranged, the Bush administration could find it difficult to sustain the culture of impunity in Iraq.

While George Bush, his Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, say that a full investigation into abuse and torture will be conducted, the impact of its findings is likely to be nullified by the pervasive culture of impunity.

The BBC reported that on May 4, Rumsfeld and Meyers had not "read fully" the US military report on the abuses which was submitted to the Pentagon on March 3. This shows that such senior figures are not really gripped by the evidence of torture and ill treatment of Iraqis by US troops.

The three-week US siege and bombardment of Fallujah produced mass graves in the town's football stadium. Of the hundreds of people killed by US bombs, rockets, machineguns and sniper rifles, 90 per cent were, according to a UN report, civilians, primarily women and children. While some were buried in their homes and gardens, many were taken to the sports field where they were interred in temporary single graves marked by crude slabs bearing the names of the victims or in multiple graves.

During and immediately after the three-week offensive last spring, hundreds of Iraqi military and civilian fatalities were consigned to multiple or mass graves, often unmarked. The Iraq Body Count website puts the number of civilian deaths at a minimum of 9,018 and a maximum of 10,873 and civilian injuries at 20,000. This toll is certainly higher than that inflicted on Iraqis over a year by the ousted Baathist regime.

The most insulting aspect of the US and British attitude to Iraqi civilian fatalities and casualties is that no one in the military of either occupying country is counting. For US and British officers and civilians, dead and wounded Iraqis simply do not exist.