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Despite improvements, Abu Ghraib still presents challenges for new commander

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq—The prisoner was wild-eyed and thrashing. His words were angry, even through the surgical mask pulled tight across his mouth, placed there to stop him from spitting on everyone in sight. Blood trickled down his brow; he'd just head-butted a military policeman on his way to the latrine.

Six MPs took him by his arms and legs and shoved him into the restraining chair—straight-backed, with black straps on its arms and legs. They belted him in. "Donkeys!" he shouted. "Why? Why? God damn America! We are Muslims!"

Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, the new commander of U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, looked downcast as he watched the scene. The man, known as the most violent prisoner in Abu Ghraib, had recently shown improvement during mental health exams. Brandenburg grew silent as he watched the man writhe against his restraints.

"This is not the right answer," the general said.

One month into his new role as supervisor of the much-maligned Abu Ghraib prison, Brandenburg, 53, is trying to lend a compassionate touch to a place that, despite improvements, remains a scene of human horror.

It's no easy task. The American prison system in Iraq—Abu Ghraib and three other prisons throughout the country—is teeming with detainees, 12,000 currently, the highest number since the insurgency began in 2003. They include diabetics and burn victims. Some may be innocent, but most are thought to be insurgent sympathizers, men who may have killed American or Iraqi soldiers. There's a problem with hot water; some prisoners have dismantled the heaters to make weapons.

The worst of the bunch are housed in Level 5, the gloomy super-maximum security compound where the most violent prisoner in Abu Ghraib sat in the restraining chair. No journalist previously had visited Level 5, and no photos are allowed of the semicircle of small cages, each housing a glum-faced inmate sitting on a thin mattress, the sole furnishing inside cells.

Inmates can be kept on Level 5 for 30 days, with three-day breaks. Brandenburg personally must approve their assignment to isolation.

It's a job like no other he's had in a 31-year military career that's included postings to Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait, and, most recently, as deputy commander of the U.S. Army Pacific in Hawaii, where "only the palm trees" are like Baghdad. He has no corrections experience.

"It's about leadership," explained Brandenburg, who has a master's degree in management. He was sipping black coffee after a day inspecting Abu Ghraib. "I have plenty of experts. Sometimes not knowing is better, so you ask some questions."

Brandenburg credits his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, with the first phase of post-scandal cleanup at Abu Ghraib, though there are accusations that Miller, who took over Abu Ghraib after running the terror detention camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, helped promulgate the interrogation policies that led to abuse at Abu Ghraib. Miller was reassigned to the Pentagon in December after seven months in Iraq.

The number of abuse complaints has dropped by about 85 percent since last April, Brandenburg said. In the last 90 days, six investigations were opened; three of the complaints were quickly dismissed as unfounded.

Brandenburg makes a point of traveling by helicopter every week to Abu Ghraib and the rapidly expanding Camp Bucca, in a remote desert on the Kuwaiti border.

Soldiers stand and salute when he sweeps into rooms during his visits. He quickly puts them at ease and starts conversations about homesickness and their children's soccer games.

A native of Elloree, S.C., Brandenburg has a Southern drawl. He listened with a grin when a new military police commander from the Bronx gave him an operations update. After the briefing, the general had one question.

"How long is it going to take me to get you to speak right?" he teased the New Yorker. "`Fuhgeddaboutit?' What's that in Arabic?"

Brandenburg is all business in the camps. His outsider's eye spots little improvements that others say go a long way in pacifying the men suspected of attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces.

On his recent day trip to Abu Ghraib, Brandenburg toured the library and ordered magazine subscriptions for inmates. He wanted desks and chairs for a classroom where prisoners learn to read. He approved more movies after hearing that inmates were sick of black-and-white Egyptian classics from the 1950s.

Other decisions were more difficult. During chats with detainees vying for his attention from behind coils of razor wire, an elderly inmate with horrific burn scars across his hands and chest asked for a "compassionate," a quick release on humanitarian grounds. Brandenburg has signed about 25 compassionates since his arrival, all the while knowing that insurgents often recruit disabled and disfigured Iraqis as suicide bombers.

"Fire touch me," the old man pleaded in broken English, showing the general his gnarled fingers. Brandenburg sighed, took down the inmate's number and agreed to check on the case.

"I do question them (detainees) and ask them for input. I do know I have to go and check," Brandenburg said later. "And I also know that what I'm hearing may not be the truth. A percentage of those we saw today have shot and killed Iraqi or coalition soldiers. Or they blew them up with an IED," the homemade bombs that the military calls improvised explosive devices. "Or they threw a hand grenade at them."

Back in Baghdad after his trip to Abu Ghraib, the general had the inmate in the restraining chair on his mind. The treatment followed protocol. None of the guards had been abusive. Yet something wasn't quite right. He pondered building the inmate a special padded cell.

Brandenburg was asked whether America's reputation could ever recover from the abuse scandal. He reached into his pocket and fished out a shiny new commemorative medallion, a so-called unit coin, which military units traditionally have minted to distribute to their members and others. This one was commissioned by the unit in charge of detention at Abu Ghraib

It was black and gold, with barbed wire and a tiny helicopter flying over a guard tower. Its inscription: "Restoring America's Honor."

"That's probably the simplest answer I can give you," the general said.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRISONS


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