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Iraqi Prisons: Restoring America's Image - 2004-05-10

Both the Arab world and Washington have been in turmoil since the April 28th revelation by CBS News of photographs showing naked Iraqi prisoners being taunted and forced to engage in objectionable behavior by U.S. military personnel. To Arab and other critics of the United States, these photographs strongly contradict U.S. statements that Iraq was liberated to release its people from tyranny. To U.S. defenders, the pictures, and the numerous official probes into the actions of some American service people prove that the United States admits to its faults and takes steps to correct them. That admission culminated on Thursday, when President Bush made a public apology during a White House visit by Jordan's King Abdullah.

First, why do these pictures of abuse exist? Some analysts, including Victor Davis Hanson at California's Hoover Institution, believe the photos were taken as a way to break down prisoners so they would cooperate with U.S. authorities. He says Arab cultural values were intentionally violated to achieve that purpose. "These coercive methods," he says, "were based on sexual intimidation (and) humiliation. The idea that you have a female who's in the presence of naked males strikes at the core of a society that puts a high premium on honor and manhood." Mr. Davis says "that seems to me to be a form of psychological torture and coercion."

The prisoner abuse revelations triggered an eruption of outrage, especially in the Arab media. Khaled Dawoud, Washington Correspondent for Cairo's al-Ahram newspaper, says the reaction has been widespread and outspoken. "It was very visible, not just in al-Ahram, but in all Arab newspapers." Mr. Dawoud continues " I've seen some very strong headlines, things like 'shame,' 'scandal,' and 'American barbarism'."

Maher al-Othman, senior editor at the London-based al-Hayat newspaper, says these images have broad implications for the United States. "Whichever way you look at it," he says, "the pictures and the stories that came out portray a horrible, awful way of treating human beings, and very irresponsible attitudes by the American forces."

The effort of U.S. public diplomacy to strengthen America's image, especially in the Arab world, has been battered by the Abu Ghraib scandal, according to Washington Times editor-at-large Arnaud DeBorchgrave. He belives "On a scale of one to ten, it's a twelve. It's about the worst thing that could have happened."

Just after the pictures surfaced, solemn promises for a thorough investigation of the situation were issued by the White House and elsewhere. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that a probe had been underway for some time. "The first indication that the Department of Defense received was, I believe, on January 13th," Mr. Rumsfeld stated, "when a soldier who saw some abuses taking place apparently reported them up his chain of command to his superior out there in Baghdad."

However, Amnesty International's Alastair Hodgett says the problems at Abu Ghraib go back considerably earlier than January, 2004. "Sadly," he says, "they're anything but new. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have been raising concerns about ill-treatment, specifically at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, since July of last year."

An internal U.S. Army report on allegations of Iraqi prisoner mistreatment was submitted by Major General Antonio Taguba in March. The report included misconduct allegations at the Abu Ghraib prison. Six members of the Military Police Company assigned to Abu Graib now face disciplinary action, three of them by courts martial, while the Army Reserve Brigadier General in charge, Janis Karpinski, has for now been relieved of her command.

Major General Taguba's report contained something else that aroused attention - the revelation that some of the interrogators in Iraqi prisons were outside contractors. Two of them are now under investigation. A private Washington-area company that provides such personnel, CACI International, says it has launched its own investigation into what its employees may have done.

Additionally, U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff General George Casey has announced a separate investigation into 25 prisoner deaths, including two incidents where prisoners were reportedly killed by U.S. personnel.

The Iraqi prison scandal prompted the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold days of hearings into what took place and who bears the ultimate responsibility. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld appeared before the committee on Friday and said the responsibility is his. He told the committee "These events occurred on my watch. As Secretary of Defense, I take full responsibility."

One committee member, Democrat Jack Reed, said people may not remember apologies, but they will long remember those infamous pictures. "For the next fifty years, in the Islamic world and many other parts of the world," he remarked, "the image of the United States will be that of an American dragging a prostrate, naked Iraqi across the floor on a leash."

Secretary Rumsfeld told the hearing that he is taking three steps to address the abuse. A review panel will observe the ongoing investigations and determine if more probes are needed. He also announced a review of rules and procedures dealing with detainees. Third, Mr. Rumsfeld said it may be appropriate to give compensation to Iraqis who were abused. Addressing the issue of the accountability of civilian contractors, the Defense Secretary told the committee they are definitely under control of military authorities. He testified "They're responsible to military intelligence, who hires them, and has the responsibility of supervising them."

Secretary Rumsfeld also used his committee appearance to answer calls for him to resign, asserting that some are partisan. "Needless to say, if I believed I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute." He added "I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it." President Bush has made it clear that he continues to support Mr. Rumsfeld and wants him to remain as Defense Secretary.

In the wake of the Iraqi prison scandal, what can the United States do to restore its image and prevent such acts in the future? The new U.S. commander of Iraqi prisons, Army Major General Geoffrey Miller, says he plans to cut the number of inmates crowded into Abu Graib prison and has ordered an end to putting hoods over prisoners being interrogated.

For Al-Hayat Senior Editor Maher al-Othman, image restoration starts with punishing those directly responsible for the abuse. He says "If these people are tried, or discharged from the forces, or imprisoned or punished in any other visible way, this might show the Iraqis and the Arabs that after all, the Americans do care and they will not allow such practices to go on."

Former U.S. Ambassador David Mack, now with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, agrees that punishing those accused of abuse is critical, demonstrating that an open society identifies and corrects its wrongs. He also says the United States must visibly and directly address the Arab world's concerns. He told VOA "We're going to have to persevere in a humane and generous evenhanded approach to Arab and Muslim issues in order to restore our reputation as a nation that does not consider people sub-human just because they don't happen to share our religion and culture."

Will these images of Iraq prisoner abuse remain in Arab and other minds for the next fifty years, as Senator Jack Reed asserts? Perhaps the old adage that "time heals all wounds" will apply in the case of this scandal. In the short term, however, numerous Arab and western observers say the considerable anger toward the United States may trigger more terrorism and make Washington's public diplomacy efforts an even more daunting challenge. Perhaps the best way forward, as former Ambassador David Mack stated, is another adage - "actions speak louder than words."