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Iraqis dismiss court-martial, criticize punishment as too lenient

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Um Nauras, tending to her snack-and-cigarette stand outside a checkpoint entrance to the U.S.-led coalition's headquarters, expressed no confidence that justice would be served in the first court-martial of a U.S. soldier in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal. Her verdict was predetermined for all the soldiers involved.

"I would hang them," said Nauras, 35. "This is a crime against Islam."

Many Iraqis were dismissive of the court-martial of Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits on Wednesday. They saw his one-year sentence of confinement—the maximum penalty he faced—as another American insult.

"One year is nothing," said Imad Hadi, 33, a moneychanger working on Damascus Street. "They take away the dignity of all Iraq and they give it one year?"

He said he believes the courts-martial are theater put on by the Americans "to tell the Iraqis, `See what we are doing here.'"

"I should be thankful he wasn't found `not guilty,'" he said sarcastically.

U.S. military officials have declined to televise the courts-martial of U.S. soldiers accused of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, leaving it up to the Arab media to report to Iraqis on what transpires. Some outlets have downplayed the court cases and played up sensational allegations.

On Wednesday, two newspapers distributed in Baghdad ran the same story detailing a former prisoner's accusation that U.S. soldiers raped a 16-year-old girl in front of her father at Abu Ghraib.

Coalition officials have repeatedly dismissed such allegations, but the stories continue to surface, fueling more resentment against the American occupation.

There was some positive reaction to the military proceeding.

A spokesman for the prominent Islamic Dawa Party called Sivits' trial and confession "a victory for all those who were abused at Abu Ghraib."

Waleed al Shahib Hilli, manager of the Dawa Party's Baghdad headquarters, said he hopes the trials continue, "and at the same time, we request that an Iraqi judge should supervise or inspect these trials because this is the right of every abused prisoner."

Songul Chapouk, a member of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, agreed that Iraqis should be involved in the court cases.

"There should be Iraqi judges and prosecutors inside that court because the victims are all Iraqi people," she said.

She has no doubt how the Sivits case should have been resolved.

"We ask for the execution of that soldier because he humiliated Islamic persons, and in our religion the penalty for that is execution," Chapouk said.

Mohammed Obaid Idan, 50, who was waiting to get in coalition headquarters to get medical treatment for his 4-year-old son, was more reserved in his assessment.

"What happened (at Abu Ghraib) is wrong," he said. But, "I cannot give judgment."

He was supportive of the idea of Iraqi involvement in the courts-martial.

"Maybe some of our people should participate in that court," Idan said. "And (the court) should listen to the Iraqis that they abused."

Ihsan al Safi, 37, the owner of a stationery store, said the court-martial had some significance, "but I really think it's not a real court."

"There should be an Iraqi jury," Safi said.

Safi said he had a friend who was held at Abu Ghraib. After hearing from his friend about how detainees were treated, Safi said he couldn't eat for two days.

Shiria Abdul Aziz, who was shopping in the al Mansur district, said the courts-martial were "to make us calm down."

Asked what sentence she would give Sivits, she replied: "Forever."


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