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Abu Ghraib: Enduring Symbol of Hated Regimes

Abu Ghraib, a 280-acre prison complex located 20 miles west of Baghdad, is a well known symbol to the Iraqi people. Abu Ghraib holds about 3,500 of the approximately 10,500 prisoners held by American forces in Iraq. All prisoners bound for the American militarys three long-term prisons are first processed at Abu Ghraib. Under Saddarn Hussein, it was known as the center of brutal torture and murder of Husseins political opponents. Ironically, that reputation may have grown under Abu Ghraibs U.S. military management. Numerous cases of abuse of prisoners have been well documented and previously reported in PLN. [PLN, Sept. 2004, p.1; Nov. 2006, p. 36; Dec. 2006, p. 1; Apr. 2005,p. 1]. Succinctly said, Abu Ghraib is still known as a place to which people go and, if they return at all, come back in much worse shape than when they entered. It is known as a location of torture and, perhaps worst of all, it is known as the location where thousands of innocent people are imprisoned.

How can these be innocent people? you might ask. After all, they are suspected insurgents and terrorists, arent they? and indeed they are categorized that way by the U.S. government. However, according to the U. S. militarys own statistics, the vast majority of the Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody are innocent.

To start with, the arrest of an Iraqi is often an intensely dangerous operation--for the Iraqi. Many Iraqis are beaten upon arrest, often they are shot. Family members may be threatened, beaten or killed to coerce cooperation with U.S. forces. Often the arrests are sweeps of entire neighborhoods or are based upon faulty information given U.S. forces by Iraqis with a grudge against the person being arrested. The military claims it does not keep statistics on beatings and killings during the arrest procedure, but many reports of abuse have been confirmed by the International Red Cross and the militarys own statistics speak of huge volumes of innocent Iraqis being imprisoned.

Iraqis who survive the arrest procedure are given multiple layers of review of their cases. At the battalion level, about 20% of arrestees are released without charges. This review generally takes place within 72 hours of incarceration and is conducted by a battalion legal officer.

The second review occurs at division level and generally takes place within 14 days following arrival at a divisional prison. That review results in the release of 36% of the remaining prisoners.

A third level of review by a mixed board of American and Iraqi officials occurs after the prisoner arrives at Abu Ghraib. The board--which consists of three U.S. officials and six Iraqis from the ministries of interior, defense and human rights--releases over half of the prisoners it reviews due to lack of evidence of guilt of a crime. This review process takes about 90 days and the prisoner is not allowed any input into the matter. In fact, neither the prisoner nor the prisoners family is informed of when the board meets or what its decision was. If the board decides to release a prisoner, it may do so unconditionally, or may require the signature of a guarantor of future good behavior. Such a guarantor could be a tribal elder, for instance.

Of those prisoners who end up going to trial before an Iraqi court, approximately 33% are acquitted. However, the trials occur only after additional lengthy imprisonment. Only 650 trials took place between August 2004, when the board was established, and late April 2005. During that time, the board reviewed 9,400 cases, unconditionally releasing 2,200 prisoners and requiring a guarantor for 3,100 released prisoners. That left an additional 4,100 prisoners requiring trials.

One might say that, with all this review and release, the system must be working well. Such an attitude would be naive. Although 78.2% of all arrestees are released before trial due to lack of evidence and another 17.1% are acquitted for a total of 95.3%, this often occurs only after lengthy detention and never occurs without the prisoners having first been subjected to the dangerous arrest procedure and the abuses which seem endemic in the U.S. military detention facilities in Iraq. It also ignores the hardships the arrest and detention of innocent Iraqis places of the family of the arrestee. The arrestee is often the male head-of-household and sole breadwinner in the Iraqi culture. Imprisoning innocent men and placing their families into a situation of near-starvation is hardly an effective approach to instilling respect for the law in the Iraqi people.
Imagine the reaction in the United States were the police to arrest and incarcerate 19 innocent citizens for every criminal convicted and sent to prison. That would mean the arrest of 38 million innocent citizens for the two million prisoners currently serving time in U.S. prisons. Including the arrestees who are on probation would push the figure toward 100 million. Would the U.S. population put up with every other adult citizen being subjected to a false arrest and imprisonment for a few days to a few months or would they too arise in armed rebellion?

Every innocent Iraqi arrested and incarcerated without reason and his family become more favorably disposed toward the insurgency. Thus, even before the proof and photographs of torture and abuse of prisoners surfaced, Abu Ghraib had become a symbol of American imperial hubris, just as it once was a symbol of the arrogance and cruelty of the Hussein regime.
Abu Ghraib, combined with Camp Bucca near Basra in southern Iraq which holds over 5,000 prisoners and Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad, which holds over 100 high-value prisoners, makes up the long-term U.S. military prison system in. Iraq. Most of the prisoners are male. Some of the prisoners are children as young as eleven years of age. In all, 65,000 prisoners have been taken in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least 108 of whom are known to have died after arriving at a U.S. military detention facility as of March 2005. Twenty-seven of those deaths are being investigated as possible homicides by U.S. personnel.

Because Abu Ghraib has become such a hated symbol of U.S. military domination in Iraq, it has also become a locus of resistance to U.S. occupation. Since Baghdad fell in April 2003, numerous violent incidents have attended Abu Ghraib and the other U.S. military prisons in Iraq. They intensified in the first few months of 2005. For instance, on January 13, 2005, 38 prisoners escaped from an Abu Ghraib prison transport bus after it came under insurgent attack. Ten were quickly recaptured. On January 31, 2005, live ammunition was used to put down a riot at Camp Bucca in which prisoners homemade sling shots had a greater effective range than the non-lethal weapons issued to U.S. military guards. Four prisoners were killed and six others wounded.

In M.arch 2005, several escape tunnels up to 600 feet long were discovered at Camp Bucca.

On April 1, 2005, a riot at Camp Bucca left twelve prisoners and two guards injured. On April 2, 2005, insurgents launched a large-scale, multi-pronged, company-sized coordinated attack on Abu Ghraib. Up to 200 insurgents carrying weapons ranging from WWII issue rifles to anti-aircraft missiles used sophisticated techniques, including three car bombs and initial feints to attack the prison complex from three sides. Seven U.S. soldiers were seriously injured during the battle. Another 16 received shrapnel wounds, 13 prisoners were killed and the bodies of two insurgents were discovered after the two-hour firefight. Also discovered were three unexploded bombs, two of them in trucks and one using a tractor. These had apparently been intercepted by reinforcements coming to aid the prison complex and the drivers had fled or been killed. The boldness, intensity and sophistication of the attack impressed U.S. military commanders. On April 6, 2005, two days after the major attack, the Abu Ghraib prison complex was again attacked using a suicide tractor bomb.

On April 1, 2005, a riot at Camp Bucca left 12 prisoners and 1 guard injured. Eleven prisoners escaped from Camp Bucca by cutting a hole in the fence on April 16, 2005. Ten of them were quickly recaptured. Also in April 2005, two violent clashes at Camp Bucca left one prisoner dead, twelve injured, and a senior camp commanding officer seriously wounded. In May 2005, eleven Camp Bucca prisoners escaped through a tunnel. On May 26, 2005, three prisoners escaped from Abu Ghraib through two holes in the perimeter fence. On June 5, 2005, an escape attempt at Abu Ghraib developed into a. stone-throwing riot that left four guards and six prisoners injured.

Clearly, Abu Ghraib will continue to be a symbol of the abuses of the American occupation. Likewise, it will continue to attract supporters to the Iraqi insurgency. While an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan would resolve the ongoing problem, that does not appear likely any time soon. Another possible cure for this is to end the abuse of prisoners and make the operation of Abu Ghraib and the other overseas American military prisons totally transparent by allowing free and frequent unannounced inspections of the prison by neutral international organizations such as the Red Cross and the media. However, since torture is an integral part of US counterinsurgency strategy, that is not likely either.

Unfortunately, neither withdrawal nor reform seem to be on the U.S. governments agenda. Whereas a female guard at Camp Bucca who participated in an organized mud wrestling exhibition as part of a going-away party for soldiers from another unit was promptly disciplined, in January 2005, the Army closed early its investigation into the abuse of prisoners by its personnel with little discipline handed out for the 56 cases of abuse it investigated. Even cases as egregious as Army personnel robbing Iraqis at gunpoint at U.S. checkpoints were confirmed, but never brought to court. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a report confirming routine torture and abuse in Iraqi government prisons and the reports of abuse in U.S. military prisons continue to flow unchecked by the Abu Ghraib scandal and the reform of prison guard training the Army claims to have undertaken in. its aftermath. Thus, at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. overseas military prisons worldwide, the business of abusing and torturing prisoners seems to be proceeding as usual.

The cover-up is also proceeding as usual. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in October 2003, seeking release of the remaining undisclosed 87 photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Top Pentagon officials have strongly opposed the release, claiming that it would add fuel to the propaganda mills of those opposing U.S. occupation in Iraq and endanger U.S. military personnel. Despite the opposition, on September 29, 2005, New York federal district judge Alvin Helerstein ordered the release of 74 photos and three videotapes taken at Abu Ghraib. Thirteen other photos and one other videotape were not ordered released. Hellerstein noted that terrorists do not need pretexts for their barbarism and opined that not releasing the pictures would be like submitting to blackmail. Sadly, he did not note that the actions of the U.S. military personnel shown in the photos, which reportedly depict scenes of guards sexually abusing, torturing and murdering prisoners--not the release of the photos--is what might endanger U.S. personnel. New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, who originally broke the Abu Ghraib story, reports that thousands of torture and abuse photos from Abu Ghraib exist that have not yet been made public which depict, among other things, the torture of children by US troops at the prison.
In a similar case, on December 3, 2004, the Associated Press published 15 photographs of SEALs in Iraq sitting on hooded and bloodied prisoners. Four SEALs sued AP, but have now agreed to drop the case and not appeal a federal district court judges decision in favor of AP. The judge had held that it would be unreasonable for the SEALs to expect the photos to remain private after one of the SEALs wives posted them on a commercial photo-sharing web site. This undermined the SEALs case. Each party agreed to pay its own attorney fees and court costs.

The commander of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, criticized the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. When we continue to pick at the wound and show the pictures over and over again, it just creates the image-a false image--like this is the sort of stuff that is still happening, and its not, said Abizaid.

However, abuse of prisoners by U.S. military personnel was always more widespread than the Pentagon wanted to admit and is continuing. On September 13, 2005, Captain Christopher M. Bering, commander of the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 377th Military Police Company was charged with dereliction of duty and making a false official statement in relation to the investigation of the death of Dilawar and Mullah Habibullah, two detainees found dead following abuse at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in December 2002. Staff Sgt. Brian L. Doyle and Sgt. Duane M. Grubb, whom Bering commanded, were also charged--Doyle with dereliction of duty and maltreatment, Grubbs with assault, maltreatment and making a false statement. Charges against Beiring, the only officer charged in this case, were later dismissed.

On September 6, 2005, Sgt. Keri Patterson, also of the 377th, testified that she saw Sgt. Christopher W. Greatorex and Sgt. Darin Broady abuse Habibullah. The testimony came during the trial of Greatorex, on charges of abusing Habibullah and covering up the abuse. Patterson, who was working in the isolation unit of the military prison at Bagram Airfield, testified that she saw Broady administer a kind of kung-fu kick to the knee of Habibullah, who was in chains at the time. She said Broady and Greatorex took turns beating Habibullah, who died of a pulmonary embolism caused by clots which the beatings apparently induced in his legs.

On August 23, 2005, specialist Glendale C. Walls, a military intelligence interrogator with the 377th, pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and assault and was sentenced to two months in prison for abusing Dilawar. Walls and military intelligence interrogator Sgt. Selena M. Salcedo, who pled guilty to similar charges, were at the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan when the abuse occurred in December 2002. Salcedo was demoted, given a letter of reprimand and forfeited $250 per month for four months. Pfc. Willie V. Brand faced the most serious charges in the abuse of Dilawar. In August 2005, a military jury convicted him of assault, maltreatment and making a false official statement. He was reduced to the rank of private, but not given any prison time. Spc. Brian E. Cammack, who had pled guilty to the abuse and testified against Brand, was sentenced to three months in prison. Spc. Joshua R. Claus intends to pled guilty to the abuse of Dilawar and another detainee. Sgt. James P. Boland was given a letter of reprimand for his involvement in the abuse of Dilawar. All of the soldiers are reservists from Ohio. All told, 11 reservists from the unit were charged in the two murders and military juries acquitted ever single one of them of murder.

On June 2, 2005, David Passaro, a former Special Forces soldier who had been charged with abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan, was charged with assaulting his girlfriend in Raleigh, North Carolina. Passaro was recruited by the CIA for anti-Taliban and al-Qaida operations in Afghanistan. He was previously charged with having beat prisoner Abdul Wali with his hands, feet and a large flashlight for the two days in June 2003, preceding Walis death. He is now additionally charged with assault, injury to personal property and misdemeanor larceny in North Carolina. Passaro was released from jail in August 2005, following a federal judges determination that he was neither a flight risk nor a threat to community safety. Passaros girlfriend might disagree with that determination. Passaro, who claims he is being scapegoated by the military in atonement for the Abu Ghraib scandal, faces up to 40 years in prison and $1 million in fines if convicted of the charges from Afghanistan. Given the track record of acquittals, dismissed charges and no prison time meted out to all other US government personnel charged with torturing and murdering prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, Passaro has little to worry about.

On June 2, 2005, military officials announced criminal charges against Sgt. Santos A. Cardona and Sgt. Michael Smith, two dog handlers, for using their un-muzzled military dogs to terrify prisoners at Abu Ghraib until they urinated on themselves. The abuse allegedly took place between November 2003 and January 2004. One of detainees was attacked by a dog Cardona was handling. Cardona faces up to twenty years in prison if convicted on all charges.

Sixteen American security guards and three Iraqi contractors are being investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for spraying Iraqi civilians and U.S. Marine positions with assault rifle fire from moving vehicles. Civilian security contractors in Iraq have a reputation for hair-trigger reactions, but are almost never prosecuted for their crimes. The security guards under investigation in this case, who deny having fired on anyone, have already left Iraq.

American officials are beginning to feel some pressure to release additional Iraqi prisoners. In August 2005, 1,000 prisoners who had been incarcerated for months without charges were released from Abu Ghraib. The release followed a request by Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni negotiator, to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to release as many uncharged detainees as possible before the October 15, 2005, referendum on the new Iraqi constitution. U.S. officials released a statement claiming that all those released had been accused of non-violent, minor crimes and all had admitted their guilt and promised future good conduct. However, if they were only accused of minor, non-violent crimes, why were they being held in a high-security prison?
A U.S. resident, Numan Adnan Al-Kaby, was released from a U.S. military prison in Baghdad on September 6, 2005. Al-Kaby was arrested in a sweep following a mortar attack on U.S. forces in April 2005. In July 2005, a military tribunal determined that Al-Kaby was innocent. Nonetheless, he remained in prison until his family filed a federal lawsuit. The military claims that, after the determination that Al-Kaby was innocent was made, the military received additional information and only completed its investigation on September 4, 2005, two days after the suit was filed. The federal judge had set a hearing for September 8, 2005, and ordered the government to explain Al-Kabys continued detention.

Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of Al-Kabys attorneys, said the governments explanation was a bald-faced lie and alleged that the military was covering up a huge scandal of illegal detention of hundreds or thousands of innocent Iraqis.

Adding substance to Rosenbaums accusations was the fact that Cyrus Kar, an Iranian-American filmmaker who had been arrested in May 2005, on suspicion of involvement in a terrorist plot, and was exonerated by a military panel, but was not released until a few days after his family filed suit in July 2005. Kar was Al-Kabys neighbor in prison.

Fifty Arabs who had been abducted and secretly transferred to prisons in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, were released in accordance with an agreement between Arab and Kurdish leaders announced on September 2, 2005. This was touted as the first stage toward releasing or returning to Arab-controlled areas all prisoners who had been illegally transferred to Kurdish-controlled prisons. The prisoners had been seized by Kurdish security forces as part of a campaign to abduct Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and other minority ethnic groups in Kirkuk, Mosul and other cities with large Kurdish populations and transfer them to prisons in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The release came amid pressure from the U.S. to resolve the situation involving extra-judicial detentions which were causing tensions between the Arabs and Kurds. The agreement was brokered by 116th Brigade Combat Team commander Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart. The detainees had already been held for six months to a year. Most had been held in private houses that held up to 75 prisoners. Many complained of verbal and psychological abuse during their incarceration.

Meanwhile, Abu Ghraib continues to take its toll of American lives. In August 2005, Army Staff Sgt. James McNaughton, 27, a NYPD police officer serving at Abu Ghraib, was killed when a snipers bullet struck him in the head while on duty in one of the prisons watchtowers. He was the first NYPD officer killed in Iraq. Currently, 272 other reservist members of the NYPD are on active military duty. New York lost its first firefighter last year in Baghdad when Christian Engledrum was killed by a car bomb.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, Washington Post, USA Today, Arab Times, New York Times, Seattle Times, Associated Press, BBC News, Miami Herald., Reuters.

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