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Be warned, worst is yet to come

Peter Goodspeed National Post (Canada) Saturday, May 08, 2004

Brace yourself. We are about to be swamped by the pornography of war

.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate armed services committee yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, warned we may not have seen the worst acts of torture and degradation inflicted by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi prisoners.

"There are other photos that depict incidents of physical violence toward prisoners, acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman," he said. "There are many more photographs, and indeed some videos."

One shudders to think what may still be revealed. The world is already revulsed by photographs of smirking U.S. soldiers abusing hooded Iraqi prisoners, stripped of their clothing and their dignity.

But as disgusting as individual, isolated acts of torture and degradation are, the real scandal lies in how top U.S. officials responded to reports of the abuses.

Everyone from George W. Bush, the U.S. President, on down now seems convinced the proper course of action is to hold a public inquiry and to move promptly and aggressively to punish those responsible.

But that's exactly what didn't happen at the Pentagon.

Until the CBS television program 60 Minutes II sparked international outrage by displaying one of the uglier secrets of the Iraq war and its aftermath, the whole sordid mess was quietly being swept out of sight.

U.S. military officials first learned of the sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in January.

By March, the U.S. Army major-general assigned to investigate the complaint had produced a report that described the "systematic and illegal abuse of detainees" and warned of a breakdown in standards in the treatment of prisoners that was far more than the actions of a few individuals.

Two months later, that report lay unread and ignored by senior Pentagon officials.

Yet Rumsfeld admitted yesterday the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, as depicted in the CBS expose, was not a single, isolated incident.

In fact, there have been a flood of reports of alleged abuses by U.S. servicemen in Iraq over the past year.

The International Committee of the Red Cross started complaining to U.S. officials about the way Iraqi prisoners were being treated in January.

They provided the Pentagon and the Coalition Occupation Authority in Baghdad with a 24-page confidential report detailing the alleged abuses in February.

Iraqi prisoners interrogated by coalition intelligence officials "were at high risk of being subjected to a variety of harsh treatments ranging from insults, threats and humiliations to both physical and psychological coercion, which in some cases was tantamount to torture, in order to force co-operation with their interrogators," the Red Cross report says.

"We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system [to the abuse]," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the Red Cross.

In July, 2003, just three months into the occupation of Iraq, Amnesty International said it had received "a number of reports of torture or ill-treatment by Coalition Forces."

It documented cases of Iraqis who had died mysteriously in detention or while being interrogated. It also reported some prisoners were being subjected to "prolonged sleep deprivation, prolonged restraint in painful positions, sometimes combined with exposure to loud music, prolonged hooding and exposure to bright lights."

"Such treatment would amount to 'torture or inhuman treatment' prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention," the report concluded.

"We raised these concerns with U.S. officials, but have not got an indication that serious action was taken to change the treatment," said Alexandra Arriagam, director of government relations at Amnesty International's Washington office.

"We are extremely concerned that there is a pattern, which suggests that the command structure is either condoning such actions or turning a blind eye."

If there were so many warnings that so much was wrong, why has it taken the Pentagon so long to respond?

Yesterday, Rumsfeld said he "failed to recognize how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels."

But that personal failing may mask a far more serious confusion in U.S. policy in Iraq.

In the absence of a clear-cut exit strategy, amid repeated reports of bureaucratic infighting, constant policy reversals and a dramatically dangerous insurgency on the ground in Iraq, investigating allegations of potential war crimes may not have been a top priority.

A combination of factors could also contribute to a numbing of the U.S. military's conscience. The war on terrorism has already resulted in bending traditional rules of engagement and encouraged a dramatic devolution of power within the military.

There is also a lack of direction and accountability caused by the Pentagon's growing reliance on privatized support services. That may have blurred lines of responsibility.

While the U.S. military ran the Abu Ghraib prison, interrogations there were conducted by private contractors working for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Still, the fact remains, even with at least two months' warning of the pending scandal, Rumsfeld and General Richard Meyers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hadn't bothered to read the report of the Pentagon's own investigation into the abuse of prisoners in Iraq.

Perhaps there lurks in the Pentagon's collective unconsciousness an almost primordial contempt for "the enemy" that has surfaced repeatedly throughout history and compelled victors to humiliate the vanquished.

Rumsfeld still seems more surprised by the world's reaction to the photos of torture than by the crimes they recorded.

National Post 2004