Iraqis shrug off concerns over photos of U.S. abuse

McClatchy NewspapersMay 15, 2009 

BAGHDAD — While President Barack Obama argues that releasing photos of U.S. soldiers abusing detainees could incite violence against American troops abroad, a prominent Iraqi leader called for their publication and others cast doubt on the U.S. administration's warnings.

Far from dominating the news as it did in Washington on Wednesday, the photo controversy has attracted almost no attention from the Iraqi news media. Even in Baghdad neighborhoods known as insurgent hotbeds, residents reacted to news of the photos with a collective shrug.

Mohammed Al Darraji, 32, who lives in Sadr City, the sprawling, impoverished Shiite Muslim neighborhood that saw some of the bloodiest clashes between local militias and U.S. forces, was unfazed.

Darraji didn't know there were more pictures of abuse by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and elsewhere until a reporter told him on Friday, and he said he doubted that their release would provoke more attacks.

"Nothing would happen," he said. "This is a very old issue, and we Iraqis have seen much worse than just photos."

Dozens of Sadr City residents were killed by a spate of bombings in public markets last month.

Harith al Obaidi, the head of the largest Sunni Muslim bloc in Iraq's parliament and the deputy chairman of the Committee on Human Rights, also shrugged off the Obama administration's concerns over the photos.

"The people who want to express their opinions through violence are already trying their best to do so," Obaidi said. "Showing them a few pictures wouldn't make them any more able to do it."

Obaidi called on Obama to release the photos and to hold any perpetrators of abuse publicly accountable. Keeping the pictures secret will only bolster suspicions that the American government is trying to suppress evidence of more widespread abuse, he said.

The desire to protect U.S. soldiers should be weighed against the need to show the world that America doesn't condone such behavior by its troops, Obaidi said.

On Wednesday, Obama reversed an earlier promise to release the photos. He said he'd changed his mind after seeing them and hearing from military commanders that they'd inflame passions in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting American soldiers at greater risk.

"The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals," the president said at a White House briefing.

The photos, which reportedly show abusive practices at Abu Ghraib and a half dozen other military detention centers, had been scheduled for release by May 28.

Little news of the debate in Washington reached Doura, either, a Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad that was a stronghold for al Qaida in Iraq during the worst postwar sectarian violence.

Imad Abass Idress, 44, a member of the U.S.-backed Sons of Iraq Sunni militia, which helped drive al Qaida in Iraq underground in Doura, said he'd heard nothing of the controversy.

He said it was possible that some Iraqis would react violently if more degrading photos turned up, but he added that most of his countrymen peacefully endure humiliations related to the U.S. occupation every day. "When people see foreign soldiers drive down their streets, or enter their homes, that makes them angry, too," he said.

As a member of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, Obaidi has heard tales from many former Abu Ghraib detainees that American guards abused and humiliated them, he said.

He said he found it hard to believe that the photos that already had come to light — which include images of detainees stripped naked and stacked on top of one another, and one of a prisoner on all fours wearing a dog leash — depicted isolated incidents.

"How can they be isolated incidents when President Obama himself alluded to abuses in two separate countries (Iraq and Afghanistan) occupied by the United States?" Obaidi asked.

(Dolan reports for The Miami Herald. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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