ANTIOCH, Calif.—Long before the world saw shocking photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees, Sgt. Michael Sindar and other MPs serving at the Abu Ghraib prison saw all they wanted of them.
Pictures of abuse and humiliation of Iraqis, taken with digital cameras, were burned onto CDs that circulated widely among prison personnel, said Sindar, 25. Peeks could be had in the chow hall.
"It was like a commodity," Sindar explained. "Whatever pictures you had, whoever had the most foul picture out there, everyone wanted to see what it was."
Brutality was also in the air. Sindar recalled a 14-year-old Iraqi with a broken arm being hurled to the ground and then mocked by U.S. soldiers as the boy wept and wet himself in the prison intake center.
He saw soldiers and officers boozing in violation of military rules, Sindar said, and watched the commander of his unit, the 870th Military Police Company, based in Pittsburg, Calif, quietly leave, accused of taking nude photos of female soldiers taking showers.
Sindar and other MPs who served at Abu Ghraib now blame weak senior officers for failing to restrain American bullies there, let alone set clear standards for treating Iraqi detainees. From the MPs' accounts, it's clear that problems at Abu Ghraib extended beyond just a few bad apples to a leadership system that failed to temper the outbursts of poorly trained and war-wearied soldiers.
"The thing with the soldiers there, they think because we're Americans you can do whatever you want," said Spc. Ramon Leal, 25, of San Jose, Calif.
The officers "didn't have the nerve to discipline soldiers," Leal continued, "so the bad soldiers had no reason not to" misbehave.
Nothing the 870th soldiers did came close to the sordid behavior of the 320th Military Police Battalion, now at the center of the volcanic inmate abuse scandal. The lone mention of the 870th in the Army's report on detainee abuses describes accusations against Capt. Leo Merck for the shower photo incident.
But some among the 124 soldiers in the 870th, which included six women, lashed out at the inmates, or at the crowds of visitors who gathered at the gates and refused to obey orders.
"There was a time I went to my superiors and said people are forgetting they're American soldiers," said Sgt. Joe Martin, a police sergeant in private life. "I saw people losing their temper quicker than was appropriate."
Martin said his superiors did nothing about it.
The 870th manned the entry checkpoints, perimeter towers, and towers overseeing prisoners in one of eight tent cities surrounded by razor wire. The 870th also worked the inmate processing center, where tempers often flared.
Prisoners were often unruly, the MPs said in a series of interviews, and the guards sometimes rough. That reflected, at least in part, the stress of the work. Shifts were12 hours long. Almost daily mortar attacks rained down on the huge 280-acre prison, its tent compounds framed in razor wire. There was fear and frustration on both sides.
The most common mistreatment was what one officer called "stupid" verbal abuse by soldiers trying to barrel through an impenetrable language barrier. Or making inmates squat repeatedly and hold their arms up for long periods of time.
Occasionally, as with the 14-year-old boy, it turned physical, soldiers said.
"I didn't understand why we had to be so rude with these prisoners and beat the crap out of these guys," said Sindar.
The company helped oversee a prison that housed most of the 8,000 Iraqi detainees held by U.S. forces, from petty criminals to Fedayeen militia. The Americans took it over last year after Saddam Hussein granted amnesty to thousands of inmates in 2002.
Hundreds of inmates lived in each tent city, where heavy rains would turn the dirt into mud so thick prisoners would get their feet stuck. The inmates were given two blankets each and slept first on dirt, then on wood floors.
Many of the detainees were angry, and some would spit at solders or rush them.
In one incident last year, prisoners started throwing large rocks up at the tower. One 870th soldier fired down, and a small riot led to the deaths of four inmates, said Sgt. Kelly Strong of Antioch, a company medic.
One young female soldier with the 870th was taken off a prison tower above one of the tent cities after she was caught firing a slingshot.
"When you have bombs going off around you all the time, it causes people to do crazy things," said Spc. Tim Noble of Concord, Calif. "Some of the soldiers held off for a very long time before they had to engage the prisoners. Our company was really good at not using lethal force until they had to."
Strong, who treated both soldiers and Iraqi inmates for injuries, said he would watch soldiers for violent tendencies or signs of combat stress.
"You can see these guys messed up, masturbating 12 times a day or running up and down the halls naked, or when they're not eating, losing weight," said Strong. "There were probably 30 people that went on medication while they were over there—Prozac, Zoloft, those kind of drugs"
Alcohol was widely available: cans of vodka, or bottles sent from home. Soldiers would pay translators to buy beer or whiskey. Soldiers who complained said their gripes were dismissed.
One 870th soldier started Alcoholics Anonymous meetings inside Abu Ghraib.
"A.A. meetings in the prison," mused Master Sgt. Greg Rayburn, a medic. "Obviously there was a need for it."
Strong, 50, said he found himself hitting Iraqi prisoners, and recognized in himself how anger could turn into brutality.
"You get a burning in your stomach, a rush, a feeling of hot lead running through your veins, and you get a sense of power," said Strong. "Imagine wearing point-blank body armor, an M-16 and all the power in the world, and the authority of God. That power is very addictive.
"That's what happened (in the scandal). They lost their sense of compassion, their sense that all these guys are not bad. Then they started degrading human beings."
Several soldiers said they got little guidance in handling prisoners and had to figure out for themselves which inmates were hard cases and which were petty criminals.
"It was, figure it out as you go," said Spc. Jose Victor Leiva of Bay Point, Calif. "The leadership were more worried about our dress code, as opposed to the situation at Abu Ghraib, being mortared every night, having security issues. There was nothing set in place."
Sindar, a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons specialist who was pressed into MP duty, said soldiers know the rules of engagement and were given a brief lesson in Iraqi culture before they left for the Middle East, but nothing when it came to their jobs at the prison.
"The training I got was common sense, use my head, and have my morals about me."
Nor were the MPs briefed on prison operations, they said. Martin said he arrived around 1 a.m. during a mortar attack and was told to start work the next day. "No orientation. No `This is the SOP,'" meaning standard operating procedure. "It was get up and go to work," he said.
In Fort Lewis, Wash., before they left for the Middle East, the 870th got basic lessons in handling prisoners of war, Martin said.
"In terms of, `Let's talk about the Geneva Convention, let's talk about prisoner treatment, let's talk about the importance of why American troops should treat prisoners better than any other nation,' nothing."
Soldiers with the 870th said they rarely saw top-level prison officials like Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of the Army Reserve's 800th Military Police Brigade, tasked with overseeing prison operations.
Karpinski would arrive from Baghdad perhaps once a month, then leave the same day, they said.
Rayburn said most of the prison operations ran well, in spite of the command.
"It just didn't seem for this big prison that there was a lot of interest," said Rayburn. "There was a real lack of concern for what was supposedly the largest coalition prison in the country."
(John Simerman reports for the Contra Costa Times.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRISON