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Fighting but losing
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 05 - 2004

The fate of Bush's loyal defence secretary remains in question as senior officials acknowledge that "the worst is yet to come" in the ongoing scandal over the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers, Khaled Dawoud reports from Washington
US President George Bush strongly backed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this week, defending him against calls for his resignation during the growing scandal stirred by horrific photos showing American soldiers torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners.
Although opinion polls indicated that two-thirds of the public does not want Rumsfeld to resign, and despite the fact that such a move would definitely hurt Bush's standing less than six months ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, senior administration officials and members of both the Republican and Democratic parties concede that Rumsfeld's fate will still hang in the balance should more horrific pictures be revealed publicly.
The fear of a wider outrage in the Arab world in the event that more photos become public led to a debate within the administration on whether the Pentagon should take a pre-emptive step and release them first. However, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld have been resisting such a move, claiming it could harm ongoing investigations and pose a threat to US troops in Iraq.
"I'd say there are a lot of equities involved here besides just satisfying the desires of the press that want to have more pictures to print," Cheney told Fox News radio on Tuesday. "There are serious questions about people's rights, as well as our ability to be able to prosecute," he claimed, while conceding at the same time that releasing the photos "clearly has significant consequence. And it affects circumstances in the region out there. It can affect our troops on the ground in Iraq. It can affect morale and so forth." Cheney added, "It's absolutely essential that the American people understand, and our men and women in uniform understand, that these are acts of a handful of individuals and should in no way reflect upon the enormous contribution that our forces out there have made, or the importance of their mission. And it's not just a matter of, sort of whetting people's appetites to see sensational stuff here."
Reflecting the same attitude, the Pentagon requested extremely tight security measures as a condition before allowing members of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees to view, for three hours only, a collection of reportedly 1,200 photos and a few video clips containing more despicable acts of torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. President Bush also saw a sample of 12 similar photos during the visit he made to the Pentagon on Monday, but not the entire collection, a White House spokesman said.
Bush allowed his aides to leak to the press that he personally chastised Rumsfeld in a private meeting last week for not informing him earlier about reports on abuses in Iraqi prisons. The scandal first broke two weeks ago, when 60 Minutes, an investigative TV programme on CBS, aired pictures of naked prisoners forced to pile on top of each other and to perform sexual acts. More pictures have been leaked since then to leading US newspapers, such as The Washington Post and the New Yorker magazine, all showing naked Iraqi prisoners, including one who was clearly terrified by two large dogs. CBS said it would air a second segment of the programme yesterday (Wednesday), including an interview with a US soldier who referred nonchalantly to killing Iraqi prisoners, saying all what she wanted was to go back home.
So far, the Bush administration has been preoccupied with damage limitation, with the US president himself giving interviews to Arabic television channels and leading newspapers to confirm that what happened in Iraqi prisons was "un-American" and did not represent the "true nature" of the US Armed Forces. Pentagon and senior administration officials are also adhering to the line that these practices revealed by recent photos were exceptional acts by a few soldiers who will shortly face an open court martial in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld announced that he ordered several investigations into the possible involvement of higher-ranking officers, particularly from the military intelligence unit that was in control of the Abu Ghraib prison.
But such measures could not stifle the outcry that the photos created in the US and around the world, or hide the obvious squabble within the administration on whom to finally blame for the torture incidents. Following a three-hour public hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the subject on Tuesday, the main news was how the senior army officer who wrote the now-famous lengthy report detailing massive abuses in Iraqi prisons clashed with one of Rumsfeld's senior aides, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone, on the simple question of 'Who was in control of Abu Ghraib and other prison camps run by the US occupation forces in Iraq?' Major General Antonio Taguba insisted that military intelligence officers "influenced, if not necessarily directed" the military police soldiers who were caught in the photos torturing prisoners to use such techniques to "set their condition" ahead of interrogation.
Allowing military police units to cooperate closely with military intelligence officers in charge of the prison facilities was one of the main recommendations made last fall by Major General Geoffrey Miller, the senior officer now in control of Iraqi prisons. Miller, who was running the infamous US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at the time, was ordered to visit Iraq in September to review prison conditions and how to improve investigation techniques. Taguba told the Senate on Tuesday that he still believed what he wrote in the report concluded in late February, opposing Miller's recommendation to allow for more cooperation between army units and intelligence officers. That led Undersecretary Cambone, known as one of Rumsfeld's most trusted advisers, to openly disagree with Taguba. He said the two army units needed to work closely in order to extract information that could lead to foiling attacks against US soldiers. He also denied that intelligence officers sought to "influence" police units to torture prisoners and turned a blind eye to abuses.
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld remained firmly on the defensive as he continued his attempts to justify what many observers here described as his effort to cover up the scandal. In statements on Tuesday, Rumsfeld claimed that it was the US military and not the media who brought up the issue of violations in prisons in Iraq. The experienced, 74-year-old politician was referring to a short statement issued by the US army in Iraq in January declaring that investigations were underway in allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. Failing to acknowledge the obvious -- that it was only after CBS television showed the shocking pictures of prisoners that the issue unfolded -- this statement was a clear indication for observers that Rumsfeld felt he was standing on shaky ground.
In his testimony in front of the Senate last week, Rumsfeld acknowledged that "it was possible" that his resignation could relatively calm world outrage over the recent photos, but insisted that he would not take such step in response to political pressures by opponents in an election year.
However, all facts revealed so far suggest that Rumsfeld was, to say the least, very slow in dealing with the issue and badly underestimated the impact of the photos on public opinion in Arab and Muslim countries. According to the timeline now known about how the torture scandal unfolded, abuse was taking place between October and December last year. After one US soldier reported the violations to a senior officer, an investigation started, but no practical measures were announced until this week, when the Pentagon said that the first US soldier out of seven charged so far would face trial in Baghdad next week. Another seven officers were reprimanded and Pentagon officials said there were more cases under investigation. The fact that it took the defence secretary nearly five months before taking any action against the soldiers involved is one key indication on how Rumsfeld could have been directly involved. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also confirmed this week the authenticity of a report leaked to The Wall Street Journal, stating that it had warned since January of massive abuses in Iraqi prisons that were "tantamount to torture".
Meanwhile, the brutal beheading of an American civilian, Nicholas Berg, who was taken prisoner by an Iraqi group reportedly linked to Al-Qaeda, will likely add to the heat of the domestic debate on how the US should react to the scandal. The masked men who carried out the beheading and posted a video on Tuesday on a website known for its links with Al-Qaeda, said they were out to avenge the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and the refusal of US army to exchange him for Iraqi prisoners. Several US commentators tried to justify the practices of US soldiers, saying torture was common in the Middle East, and that the Iraqis seen tortured were little different from insurgents who killed and mutilated the bodies of four US civilians in Falluja last month. The family of the seven US soldiers named to face a military trial also defended the acts of their relatives, saying they were carrying out orders by senior officers in order to soften up the detainees ahead of interrogation.


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