Culture Of Impunity?

The efforts at damage control are picking up steam. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the man sent to clean up Iraq's U.S. Army-run prisons, today announced that the number of detainees held at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison will be reduced by more than half. And in a bid to counter the growing scandal, he's already banned the use of hoods to cover the heads of detainees during transport; instead "pressure bandages" or goggles will be used to cover prisoners' eyes.

Miller, who used to command the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, took over responsibility for Iraq's 14 military-run prisons last month after allegations of abuse perpetrated by U.S. military personnel triggered no less than five separate investigations. But it'll take a lot more to remove the stain of Iraq's current prison abuse scandal. Many Iraqis shudder at the words "Abu Ghraib." It was Saddam Hussein's most notorious prison, symbol of a regime so vast and so opaque that Iraqis are still sorting out whose corpses wound up in mass graves, and who simply disappeared. When Saddam's guards fled the facility last year, as the U.S. military advanced on Baghdad, they emptied the cells, taking some prisoners with them and killing others on the grounds.

When I visited Abu Ghraib in early April last year, local Iraqis led me to an execution ground where a sickly-sweet smell hovered over the remains of half a dozen prisoners. They'd been shot to death several days earlier and left to decompose in the sweltering sun. In the concrete cell-block that served as Death Row, two hangman's nooses were left dangling. The thick ropes were thoughtfully lined with muslin so that vomit and saliva from dying prisoners would not prevent the nooses from being re-used, over and over again.

Many Iraqis suggested Abu Ghraib be shut down after Saddam's ouster. But Coalition authorities didn't have time to build another prison. They needed detention cells quickly--lots of them at that. The number of "security detainees"--those deemed to be a potential threat to the coalition-currently number some 8,000. About half of them are at Abu Ghraib.

Once again the prison symbolizes the repression of detainees--this time at the hands of Americans. Recent revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison have triggered a maelstrom of outrage in Iraq. "The way the Americans are treating prisoners has no relation to human rights," says Wissam Ali, the 31-year-old owner of a Baghdad photo shop. "There's no difference between them and Saddam."

Of course, the scale of U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib cannot compare to the horrific excesses of Saddam's time. But the photographs showing naked Iraqi prisoners forced to simulate sex acts--as grinning guards looked on--have seriously "undermined U.S. credibility" in the eyes of Iraqis,fumes Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Governing Council.

And for every graphic photo that appeared on Arabic satellite TV channels, dozens of dark nightmares were conjured up in Iraqi minds. "Shame on anyone who says Saddam had mass graves and tortured prisoners. The Americans are doing much more horrible things," said Sahar Ja'far, a female engineer, "If this is what they do to men...what do they do to women who are detained?"

Scrambling to respond to the scandal, the Pentagon declared there is "no evidence of systematic abuse" in U.S. detention facilities, as Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it. Still, Amnesty International says it has received "scores" of reports of ill-treatment by detainees, suggesting a "pattern of torture" perpetrated by Coalition troops. The London-based human-rights group reported in March that many ex-prisoners claimed they'd been subjected to beatings, prolonged sleep deprivation or exposure to high-decibel music, and other forms of psychological duress. "This does not appear to be an isolated incident," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, of the Abu Ghraib case after attending a closed-door briefing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

At very least, detainees interviewed by NEWSWEEK indicate that maltreatment was not limited to Abu Ghraib prison. Their tales hint at a "culture of impunity" that encouraged some Coalition soldiers to abuse and humiliate detainees--or expose them to harm from other Iraqis--with little concern about getting caught.

Ahmed Makki al-Obeidi is a case in point. When the knock on the door came in January, Obeidi wasn't totally surprised. His Wife, Huda Ammash, nicknamed "Mrs. Anthrax", was the highest-ranking woman in Saddam's Baath party and allegedly his biological weapons expert (a charge Obeidi denies). She was picked up in May 2003. Obeidi says he was incarcerated for eight days in a "tomb-like" cell near the Baghdad airport. U.S. soldiers played loud, disorienting rap music nonstop "with lots of words like 'f--k' and 's--t'," he recalls, "I heard they played such music to drown out the sounds of torture".

Obeidi, who's lived and studied in the United States, says interrogators on one occasion made him strip to his underwear, doused him with cold water and stood him before an air conditioner. After a while, he was allowed to warm up for a few minutes. Then his interrogators repeated the process--over and over, for about six hours, he told NEWSWEEK. "They kept yelling 'Tell the truth'. But I didn't know what truth they wanted me to tell." His ordeal ended when an American officer stopped the "freezer treatment" and took him back to his cell--with an apology. Coalition officials said they would look into his case.

Baghdad resident Akeel Hassan, 31, never even got to be interrogated. He says he was arguing with a neighbor last June when a U.S. patrol happened to be driving past. The Americans beat and kicked Hassan, then shoved him into a truck. He was first driven to a southern detention camp, where he saw firsthand how brutal prison life can be: an Iraqi male prisoner was gang-raped by seven other detainees, some of whom threatened the victim into silence by telling him "they would mutilate his face" if he turned them in.

Ten weeks later, Hassan was transported to Abu Ghraib. At first he stayed in an outdoor tent, which detainees consider a "virtual death sentence" because of their vulnerability to mortar and rocket attacks. (Just two weeks ago, an especially intense mortar barrage--possibly aimed at triggering a prison riot among restive inmates--killed 22 prisoners and wounded nearly 100.)

After a few days, Hassan was moved into a 50-square-foot cell with 37 other detainees. Although Abu Ghraib was run by Americans, those he calls "Iraqi employees"--perhaps contractors--soon took over some responsibilities. "That's when things began to get chaotic," he recalls. "Criminals could move around more easily and even go from cell to cell to fight with or threaten people." One day, a fight erupted when a Nasiriya criminal gang tried to rape an inmate. U.S. guards punished everyone in the vicinity of the brawl by forcing them to strip and sit, naked and hooded, for six hours. "If we moved we were beaten," he says. When Hassan, wracked with painful diarrhea, tried to remove the sack over his eyes "an American female soldier grabbed my head and smashed it against the wall."

Conditions in Abu Ghraib were so abysmal, he says, that the detainees rioted in early December. "The Americans opened fire on us, and one person was shot dead." says Hassan, "It began when detainees burned blankets to protest the chaotic situation" in which criminals were allowed to terrorize other detainees. (Hassan's account could not be independently verified.) He says his cellblock was near an air-conditioned "investigations" room where, despite a noisy generator, Hassan could hear detainees screaming while being interrogated. After inquiries by his family, he was released April 7. Coalition authorities did not offer any immediate comment on this account.

Mazin Khalid considers himself a fortunate survivor. He says he was waiting to gas up his car last July when an American soldier smacked his windshield. A shouting match ensued, then half a dozen U.S. soldiers pulled him out of his car. "A soldier put his boot on my head, that's what really insulted me," says Khalid, a former army brigadier. Wrists and ankles cuffed, he was thrown into a truck and driven to an open field. There he and about 50 other detainees sat for six hours in the scorching sun. Finally they were transported to the detention facility at Baghdad airport. "Interrogators kept asking questions like 'Where is Saddam Hussein?' or 'Where are the Saddam Fedayeen?'" recalls Khalid. "I had no idea where they were."

Khalid was flown to a different prison in southern Iraq. There, swaggering Iraqi detainees--often hardened criminals--reigned as prison yard "chiefs." Coalition guards made them responsible for doling out two meals a day, and three cigarettes per meal, to the detainees. "But often they kept the best for themselves," says Khalid. "They lived like kings. They had the best food, even fresh fruit." Cigarettes were used as currency: two bought a pillow, a blanket cost 10 smokes. One of the chiefs, a notorious Baghdad robber, invited Khalid to live in his tent "because I spoke a little English. He wanted me to say good things about him to the Americans." The chief's entourage included a young Iraqi "servant" who had sex with his patron, and did his laundry, in return for protection.

Khalid counts himself lucky to have leveraged his broken English into a survival tool. He tried to cooperate with his interrogators--even though he says he knew nothing about the anti-Coalition resistance--and wound up doing some translation for prison guards. When he was released in October, one female officer even gave him a letter of recommendation addressed to the U.S. commander of Abu Ghraib prison, suggesting that he work there as a translator.

Khalid had heard dark tales about Abu Ghraib. Other detainees said it was a paranoid world where everyone--Iraqi detainees and U.S. guards alike--were stressed by near-daily insurgents' shelling and mortar attacks. "The bombings make the guards hysterical," Khalid says, "and the Americans take out their hysteria on their prisoners." At any rate, Khalid wanted nothing more to do with prison life--even as a relatively well-paid translator working for the U.S. occupation. "It's the strangest world I've ever seen," he told NEWSWEEK. "I force myself to forget the bitter memories. But they come back. The memories keep burning in my mind." And, no doubt, in the minds of numerous other detainees too.