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Abuse allegations a blow to U.S. effort to win Iraqi hearts, minds

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Abu Ali spent three years at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison during Saddam Hussein's brutal reign.

"If you spend a night there, you are going to hate your life," said Ali, 59, who runs a car wash in Baghdad.

But after seeing photographs of the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib at the hands of American soldiers, his anger and loathing no longer dwell on what he endured.

"I really hate the Americans now after this," Ali said.

Just as the U.S.-led coalition seemed to be turning a corner in resolving the crisis in Fallujah that angered most Iraqis, it faces fresh outrage from the airing of pictures showing detainees stripped naked, forced to simulate sex acts, allegedly threatened with electrocution—all while Americans smiled and pointed mockingly at the humiliated men.

With Iraq already roiled by unrelenting violence and a lack of basic services like electricity, the abuse allegations have dealt a severe setback for American attempts to convince Iraqis that the occupation is a sincere endeavor to improve their lives.

"All the pictures are very, very bad," said Abd al Karim, 46, owner of a leather shop near central Baghdad.

He is particularly angered by the smiles of the Americans.

"They are making a joke about the Iraqi people," he said. "We are like a joke."

The revelations have led to worldwide condemnation, and even President Bush said he shared a "deep disgust" at what he saw.

Six military police officers have been criminally charged and their commanders face administrative review. A separate administrative investigation is focused on the intelligence officers who directed the interrogations of the prisoners.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, military spokesman for the coalition, said new training has been instituted to ensure that every prisoner in Iraq is treated with "dignity, respect and humanity."

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been sent to Iraq to oversee prison operations. Another general has been assigned to investigate the interrogation procedures.

"We are taking, as a coalition, as an army, very aggressive steps to ensure that the risk of this happening again is absolutely minimized," Kimmitt said.

Speaking to Iraqi reporters, Kimmitt stressed that the allegations involve "a very small minority of the hundreds and hundreds of guards that we have operating in Abu Ghraib prison. It's a very small minority of the soldiers that walk up and down your streets every day trying to provide safety and security for the people of Iraq. We've had thousands—we've had tens of thousands of security internees at Abu Ghraib, and we believe that this involves less than 20."

However, a purported internal military report cited by The New Yorker magazine this weekend said that during the last three months of 2003, there were many instances of "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" at the prison. Some of the alleged abuses included beatings and sodomy with foreign objects.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that there is no evidence of systematic abuse.

But the types of descriptions now being alleged were once reserved for the infamous prison during Saddam's era.

Abu Ali remembers the fearful conditions well.

In 1997, he said he was accused of price gouging in his merchant businesses and sentenced to three years at the prison west of Baghdad. He suspects his resistance in joining the ruling Baath Party was partly to blame for the sentence.

During his time at Abu Ghraib, he watched other prisoners beaten and struck with electrified prods. Some inmates had their shoulders dislocated when guards tied their hands behind their backs and then hung them by their hands from the ceiling, he said.

Ali said he was not beaten in prison, but he remembers that he was hit in the head with a stick and robbed by thieves last year after the coalition took over.

He complains that the Americans promised a better life without Saddam. Instead, he said, he must deal with widespread crime and power outages.

His anger at the Americans was already simmering when he saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

"Why are they without clothes?" he asked about the detainees shown in the photographs. "Maybe," he suggested of the American guards, "they see Saddam's movies?"

For Al Karim, who mainly now sells generators from his leather shop, the pictures confirmed the worst of what he feared about Americans.

"The Americans have two faces," he said. They will rescue a cat or dog, he said, but "they will kill you in prison and urinate on you."

When asked what impact the pictures will have on Iraq, Al Karim offered a warning.

"What do you think Iraqis will do? They will join the resistance."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.