Why'd Obama switch on detainee photos? Maliki went ballistic

McClatchy NewspapersJune 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama reversed his decision to release detainee abuse photos from Iraq and Afghanistan after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki warned that Iraq would erupt into violence and that Iraqis would demand that U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq a year earlier than planned, two U.S. military officers, a senior defense official and a State Department official have told McClatchy.

In the days leading up to a May 28 deadline to release the photos in response to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, U.S. officials, led by Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told Maliki that the administration was preparing to release photos of suspected detainee abuse taken from 2003 to 2006.

When U.S. officials told Maliki, "he went pale in the face," said a U.S. military official, who along with others requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.

The official said Maliki warned that releasing the photos would lead to more violence that could delay the scheduled U.S. withdrawal from cities by June 30 and that Iraqis wouldn't make a distinction between old and new photos. The public outrage and increase in violence could lead Iraqis to demand a referendum on the security agreement and refuse to permit U.S. forces to stay until the end of 2011.

Maliki said, "Baghdad will burn" if the photos are released, said a second U.S. military official.

A U.S. official who's knowledgeable about the photographs told McClatchy that at least two of them depict nudity; one is of a woman suggestively holding a broomstick; one shows a detainee with bruises but offered no explanation how he got them; and another is of hooded detainees with weapons pointed at their heads.

Some of the photos were of detainees being held in prisons, while others were taken at the time a detainee was captured.

"It was not so much the photos themselves, but that the perception that they would be Abu Ghraib-type photos," added the senior defense official, who said U.S. officials were worried "about the potential street consequences" of making the photos public.

Iraq is scheduled to hold a referendum by July 30 on the accord, which calls for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011. If the accord were rejected, the U.S. would have to withdraw from Iraq within a year of the vote or by the summer of 2010. Some U.S. officials fear that would be before Iraq's security forces are ready to protect their country on their own.

The status of forces agreement calls for the U.S. to train Iraqi forces in specialized areas such as aviation and intelligence gathering and to step to the side as Iraqi forces take control of their communities.

Maliki's office, Iraq's deputy prime minister and the foreign minister didn't answer calls seeking comment.

Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said that Obama "has been clear that releasing the photos would have no benefit except to potentially increase the risk to our troops. He's also made clear that the existence of these photos was only known because the acts were investigated and those who undertook them were sanctioned."

With tensions rising again in major Iraqi cities such as Baghdad and Mosul, Maliki feared that "if you add this (the photos) to that mix, it could very easily provide an incentive to the extremists" to use more violence, a State Department official said.

That, in turn, might cause U.S. and Iraqi commanders to reconsider the troop withdrawal from urban areas, which would be a major setback to Maliki's government and to the Obama administration, which is determined to withdraw troops from Iraq as it escalates the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The administration, which as late as April had agreed to release as many as 2,100 photos, said in the two weeks before the deadline approached that the release could trigger a backlash against American troops.

After U.S. officials notified Maliki, the prime minister put "heavy pressure" on Hill and Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, to stop the release, the senior U.S. defense official said.

In early May, Odierno and Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said they objected to the release of the photos. Both Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said they changed their minds largely because of objections from U.S. commanders in the field, but they never mentioned Maliki's reaction. Col. James Hutton, Odierno's spokesman, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

The senior U.S. defense official said that Hill and Odierno were the "primary voices" urging Obama to reverse his decision. They were joined by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command; and McKiernan, who also were concerned that the photos, while not comparable to the pictures of U.S. guards abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, could ignite anti-U.S. violence. The Senate is expected on Tuesday to confirm Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal as McKiernan's successor.

Several days after the meeting, Odierno returned to Washington, and he and Gates took their concerns to Obama. It took "considerable lobbying" before the president changed his mind, the senior defense official said.

On May 13, Obama appeared on the South Lawn of the White House and said: "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. In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

The photos are part of a 2004 lawsuit that sought the release of photos that were part of investigations of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and a half dozen other prisons. The Pentagon objected to the release of the photos, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court ruling to release them.

On Monday, the ACLU released a letter signed by a dozen organizations calling for the release of the photos.

"The Pentagon should release the photos while reaffirming to the world that the U.S. repudiates such barbaric behavior and is committed to dismantling the culture that allowed it to occur. In the end, full disclosure of the crimes committed by our government will make us all safer," the letter said.

(Jonathan S. Landay, Warren P. Strobel and Marisa Taylor contributed to this article.)

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