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Published in the 16-31 May 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The Ugly American in Iraq
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

On his re-election stump in Michigan, George W. Bush had the gall to claim that he was optimistic about a great future for America because, in his mind, 'we are a decent nation.'

Bush must have a lot of raw nerve to make that apocryphal claim on the heels of sensational disclosures of a massive abuse of the Iraqi prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghuraib prison, outside Baghdad. Explicit photographs of dastardly violations of the prisoners' rights-as defined in the Geneva Conventions-first released by the US television network, CBS, on its popular " 60 Minutes" but subsequently carried in more graphic details by other independent channels, have sent shock waves travelling across the globe. Interestingly, the establishment tv, like CNN and Fox News, bent over backwards to keep the story off the air on their part.

Abu Ghuraib became synonymous in the eyes of the outside world with the cruelty that the Saddam regime personified in Iraq. People inside and outside of Iraq cringed in fear at the very mention of Abu Ghuraib because horrendous stories of torture, rape and murder of prisoners were associated with it. However, the horror of Abu Ghuraib is still alive long after the eclipse of Saddam. The victims are still the people of Iraq but their new tormentors are those who had forced their entry into Iraq in the name of relieving its people of oppression and torture. Saddam has simply been replaced by the 'Ugly American' whose cruelty is as oppressive and abusive as was Saddam's, if not more aggravating.

Those macabre photographs that benumbed the civilised world were worth a million words each. They showed Iraqi prisoners, hooded and wired, and almost crucified by being forced to stand on cardboard boxes like blind bats. Naked Iraqi men were piled upon each other like raw meat and forced to simulate sexual acts; beaming American service women stood with obvious delight behind these piles with mischievous smiles on their faces.

In another graphic photograph, an impish American service woman was shown gesturing obscenely with her fingers in the direction of a naked and hooded Iraqi prisoner.
The obvious thrust of these crimes against the Iraqi dignity and self-respect could be none other than to humiliate the Iraqis and make them feel small and helpless against their supposed 'liberators.' The purpose could be none other than to ridicule the known pride of a people who are, true to their right, the inheritors of the world's oldest known civilisation. And yet Bush claims that he, a macho cowboy by nature and instinct, is presiding over a 'decent' nation.

As if desperate lest it was left behind the senior partner in providing proof of their own civilisation, the sidekick in the Anglo-American Axis came up with its own dazzling display of 'civility.' London's tabloid, the daily Mirror, splashed on its front pages horrendous photographs of a hapless, eighteen-years old, Iraqi prisoner being barbarously brutalised by soldiers of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in Basra. The young Iraqi lad, also hooded, had his hands and feet tied and dumped like a piece of meat in a truck where English soldiers mercilessly mauled him for 8 hours; at the end of his ordeal he was thrown off the moving truck like a stuffed garbage bag and left there to die by the roadside.

The British, trying to be clever-by-half, went into the denial mode immediately after the publication of their own graphic proof of barbarity and torture. So called 'defence experts and analysts' got into the act, nitpicking the photos to cast doubts on their authenticity and provenance. However, no amount of denial or doubt would mitigate the damage done to Britain's largely self-serving claim that its presence in southern Iraq was more benign than the American in the rest of Iraq. The world will be entitled to conclude that the Anglo-Americans are chips off the same block and both are behaving like typical imperialist bullies in a land that has never favoured the presence of a foreign invader, no matter how adventurous or intrepid.

Unlike London, Washington didn't choose to opt for denial simply because there was no room for it. The details were so categorical that even an ultra-hawk like Donald Rumsfeld was forced to admit that the conduct of the perpetrators of the crimes was " totally un-acceptable and un-American".

But the world would take Rumsfeld's pious protestations that these were acts of a few individuals with a pinch of salt. Likewise, it would be hard to isolate these wanton crimes of a few as mere aberrations or indiscretions, because these acts fit into a broader pattern of massive abuses of the rights of a conquered and subjugated people by the Americans, from Afghanistan to Guantanamo to Abu Ghuraib. The 'ugly American' has been on the loose and stalking the world, ever since the tragedy of 9/11, to trample the rights of the weaker people with a callous disregard in the name of fighting terrorism. What the inebriated few did to their hapless prisoners in Abu Ghuraib was as American as what has been routinely meted out to 600 plus detainees ( or 'foreign illegal enemy combatants', in the official American lingo ) of Guantanamo; or tens of thousands of Afghans rounded up and corralled in Afghanistan.

In fact, reports coming to light in the wake of the Abu Ghuraib exposure speak of a consistent pattern of abuse and wanton disregard of the Iraqi prisoners' human rights over a long period of time.

For instance, a front page report in the New York Times of May 5 stated that the American Army had conducted a number of investigations in the last 16 months of a much wider pattern of abuse of prisoners' rights by its soldiers in Iraq. These investigations established that a number of deaths of prisoners were caused by torture and at least two cases of homicide were proved. Several soldiers were reprimanded for egregious behaviour but none prosecuted or condemned.

The disclosure of this deliberate pattern of prisoner abuse, made by the Army's Vice Chief of Staff, General George W. Casey Jr., nails the attempt by the Bush administration's neo cons to play down the heinous violations at Abu Ghuraib as 'isolated' acts. Abu Ghuraib was only a link in a chain of abuse stretching back to the induction of American forces in Iraq. General Casey admitted that at least 10 incidents of death of Iraqi prisoners at various detention centres were under investigation.

Another element of the large scale abuse pattern now surfacing is that in many such incidents the guilt can be traced to the presence at the detention sites of Intelligence agents, as well as mercenaries hired by private defence contractors. It is a less well-publicised fact of the American military presence in Iraq that at least ten thousand mercenaries-mostly retired military personnel-are also involved in the occupation. These 'hired guns' belong to dozens of private defence contractors who are actively lending a helping hand in Iraq with the blessings of their political mentors.

It will be recalled that the recent violent military confrontation between the Americans and the valiant freedom fighters of Falluja was triggered when the Iraqis murdered four of these mercenaries and later dragged their dead bodies across the city. In response to that, the American heavy handed and bloody retaliation led to at least 600 Iraqis, mostly civilians, killed; the toll on the American side was also heavy-about a hundred dead.

The New York Times story also spoke of an earlier report, of March 9 this year, compiled by Major- General Antonio M. Taguba based on his investigation into similar cases of abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghuraib in November last year. Taguba's findings were, simply put, devastating, and painted a picture of an occupation army gone totally berserk and running amok to trample the rights of the Iraqi prisoners with a vicarious contempt.

Taguba categorically established in his findings that between October and December of 2003, there were scores of instances of " sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" at Abu Ghuraib. Celebrated investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, wrote a front page article in the New York Times of May 6, quoting verbatim from Taguba's still-confidential report of large scale abuses at Abu Ghuraib. According to him, the abuses included, among so many others:

  • Breaking chemical lights and pouring phosphoric liquid on detainees.
  • Pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating them with a broom handle and a chair.
  • Threatening male detainees with rape; sodomising a detainee with a chemical light and a broom stick.
  • Intimidating and terrorising detainees with trained and ferocious military dogs, and in one case actually letting a dog bite a prisoner.

Taguba's list of terror tactics used against the hapless prisoners at Abu Ghuraib goes on and on and reads like a horror story. However, it was not a story reeled out on the inmates of Abu Ghuraib but actual dastardly acts committed by a supposedly 'civilised' army.

A more disturbing pattern laid bare in Taguba's report points the finger at conniving Intelligence agents and some mercenaries abusing the Iraqi prisoners, " directly or indirectly" with obvious impunity, relish and hubris.
Taguba also catalogued in his report that two of the worst cases of prisoner abuse last November were a direct result of new techniques introduced for interrogation at the behest of Major-General Geoffrey D. Miller, then incharge of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba. Miller, according to Taguba, wanted " to rapidly exploit the internees for actionable intelligence", thus condoning the use of all questionable means to 'soften up' the prisoners. 
The lady Brigadier-General, Janis Karpinski, incharge of Abu Ghuraib at the time of the latest violations, also corroborated the powerful role that intelligence agents played in the enactment of various reprehensible acts of terror against the prisoners in order to pry them open for their own nefarious objectives. What Karpinski didn't mention, however, was her own intelligence background and the fact that she saw action in the Gulf War of 1991 with Special Forces and was anxious to get another crack at the Iraqis.
The kind of arrogant and overbearing commander she must have been to her Iraqi prisoners could well be gleaned from her remarks in an interview last December with her Kentucky home town paper, the St. Petersburg Times, about the 'facilities' she and her army were catering to the Iraqis at Abu Ghuraib. She said with pompous elan: " Living conditions now are better in prison than at home. At one point we were concerned that they ( the Iraqis held there ) wouldn't want to leave." So she and her cohorts came up with ingenious terror methods to force them to leave.

Karpinski's arrogance was simply echoing the hubris of her commander-in-chief, George W. Bush who still sees his mission to Iraq as one laced with humanitarian concern for the welfare of the Iraqis. He refuses to come out of his messianic mould and thinks he and his forces are doing a favour to the Iraqis by being there and guiding them toward the American model of democracy and democratic values.

A recent article in the Washington Post quoted a member of the Bush clan insisting that Bush is a very religious man and sees the divine hand of God guiding him on his Iraq mission.

So, whilst Bush may express his personal disgust and agonise at the barbaric conduct of his prison guards in Abu Ghuraib his resolve to keep the 24 million Iraqis in a huge, American guarded, prison remains undiluted. He is making absolutely certain that there is no deviation from the course he and his neo con minions have charted for a semi-sovereign and nominally independent Iraq after the stage-managed and well-choreographed transfer of 'sovereignty' to the Iraqis on June 30.

Bush's choice of the American Ambassador to replace Proconsul Bremer and preside over the largest American Embassy in the world (with more than 2000 'diplomats') is interesting to note. John Negroponte, until recently Ambassador to UN in New York, has been hand-picked for the job. Negroponte has a notorious reputation and ideally fits the Bush mould. He was ambassador to the Honduras during the Reagan era and acquired notoriety for organising murderous gangs under the Honduran Army. Those CIA-trained murderers made the life of ordinary Hondurans a living hell. Negroponte's unlisted mission in Baghdad must worry the people of Iraq. He might even make Bremer look decent by comparison.

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