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Losing Hearts & Minds

The US military has maintained that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq was the work of rogue soldiers like Lynndie England and poor supervision. Whatever the cause, US authorities insist that those practices have now ended. Tonight, author and journalist John Martinkus reveals a rather different account.

Broadcast 08/04/04 - Dateline - Australia


REPORTER: John Martinkus 

We are on our way to raid houses and pick up insurgents on the outskirts of Baghdad. More than 200 troops from the US 1st Cavalry have been out on this raid since 2:00 in the morning. These operations are the daily work of the US troops in Iraq. 

CAPTAIN LEICKER: What we're doing here today is called Operation Grand Slam. It's a division mission that we're coming out here. The President of Iraq and a senior leader, General Casey, from the United States, the multinational forces, has asked us to come down here to this area. We have had some luck, we have identified at least three people off the list that we're trying to capture, plus we've captured an additional six individuals that have come up hot initially on explosives. So right now we're looking at least nine people and we're also searching to get three more people that are out hiding in the palm groves. 

This man has just been detained. 

REPORTER: Tell me quickly what's going on? 

CAPTAIN LEICKER: What's going on, I'm asking this guy questions and he's lying to me. Same old thing. We got some intel on him and his family that they are some of the bad guys around here and we're finding some pretty interesting stuff in his house but he doesn't know anything, he doesn't know anybody. He doesn't even know where his brother is and the whole family is pretty much crime-ridden. So he's not telling us anything. He's just standing here lying to us. 

REPORTER: So what will happen to him? 

CAPTAIN LEICKER: What will happen to him? He will go take a nice little trip with us, go spend a few days in our deluxe accommodations back at the FOB. And if we're lucky he'll go get to visit his cousin up in Abu Ghraib. Hopefully that will work out. Nice family reunion. 

PRISONER (Translation): I'm a worker. I have nothing to do with it. I'm a guard. 

With the media minder out of sight, I get to film inside the house. 

REPORTER: So can you give us a rundown on what's going on? They're just searching the house? 

SOLDIER: Not really. 

There is a pattern to these raids. The women are kept in one room while the house is searched and the men are taken for questioning. The soldiers are acting on information that this property is used by the insurgents. They are searching for hidden weapons or explosives, but they find nothing here today. Often these raids don't uncover anything, but the people are still detained and questioned. The detention can last indefinitely. What will happen to this man if he goes to Abu Ghraib or to any of the other detention facilities throughout Iraq? These shameful scenes at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad caused enormous damage to standing of the US throughout the world. Since these pictures were revealed in April, the authorities have taken measures to show there is no more torture in Abu Ghraib. But there is ample evidence that violence and torture are still applied in Iraqi prisons. There are also claims of abuses outside the prison system, like theft and looting by US soldiers. What emerges is that there's consistent mistreatment of Iraqis in and out of jails, which has cost the Americans their battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. 

EMAN AHMED KHAMAS, OCCUPATION WATCH: On many cases there are no proofs. I mean, when they raid the house in the middle of the night there is only the victim and the troops. 

Eman Ahmed Khamas runs Occupation Watch, a human rights organisation that documents the abuses under the US occupation. I asked her if abuses in the prisons were policy or isolated cases. 

EMAN AHMED KHAMAS: I think it's a policy. Torturing prisoners to get information is a policy. But the kind of torture is different from place to another. 

Eman says there is a variety of practices that characterise jails and even individual interrogators. 

EMAN AHMED KHAMAS: Many of the prisoners told me about a kind of torture which is called the scorpion. The scorpion. And the man who did this kind of - I mean, this is his trademark, this is his kind of torture, is called Satan, you know. And they describe him - everybody agree that he is not very tall, that he's reddish, that he's not black, that he has tattoo on his arms, on his chest, etc. This kind of torture is simply very - they tie the hands up and they tie the legs together. They put the man on his face on the ground and then they join the hands and the legs, you know, the wrong way, not from the front, from the back. And then they put their boots on the back and they push. And so, of course, this is very dangerous because a man could be killed in this because if they break his backbone he's killed. And I actually heard one man was killed in this kind of torture, one. 

Zeini told me he witnessed abuses of his cellmates in the US-administered prison at the Baghdad Airport. What he describes took place at the exact time the US Administration was stating it would never happen again. 

ZEINI (Translation): They'll always shift prisoners between cells. They brought in an engineer called Khaled. He'd been imprisoned in Adhamiya Palace. They mutilated him. They brought him in totally naked. They had put a stick in his rectum. His bottom was covered in blood. His finger was cut off. 

REPORTER: When did this happen? Was this after April or was this before? 

ZEINI (Translation): Yes. 

Shortly after Zeini was released. 

ZEINI (Translation): They got me to take off the orange overalls. The orange overalls. I took them off. They uncuffed my hands and feet. And gave me my clothes. The American officer came and told me "I'm sorry. We apologise. But say nothing outside or we'll bring you back in. It wasn't up to us. We received information about you." 

Zeini told me about his cellmate at the Airport prison, Dr Nazar. He said Dr Nazar was transferred to Abu Ghraib from the Airport prison. He believes Nazar was killed at Abu Ghraib. 

ZEINI (Translation): He said "It doesn't look good. My destiny is unknown". He was crying. He said, "Only God knows where they'll take me." He gave us his home address. After my release... I was released on the 28th... I went to his house in Adhamiya. He was killed on the 19th of June. 

Nazar's family told Zeini that the body was dumped by US troops outside a Baghdad hospital. Nobody knows the exact circumstances of his death. Eman is trying to investigate Dr Nazar's case. But it's difficult. 

EMAN AHMED KHAMAS: There are prisoners that you can never ever see if you're a journalist, an organisation, human rights, Red Cross, whatever, Iraqi Government, this was those who are wanted by the American forces or troops or intelligence so we don't know what happens to these people. 

I have permission to film at the Abu Ghraib prison. But it's a PR visit and it's not likely to reveal anything new about the claims of eye-witnesses and human rights workers. But these claims of torture, harsh treatment and arbitrary detention ring true. In Baghdad I interviewed three other prisoners, abused since the Abu Ghraib scandal, who would not appear on camera. They all said the Americans had told them not to speak to the media at any time in the next 10 years or they would be arrested again. They all spoke of torture. Two of them referred to sexual abuse of female prisoners, something confirmed by the US military themselves in the leaked report that broke the Abu Ghraib scandal. A former detainee told me about two female prisoners killed by their families after their release because the families had believed they had been raped in the prison. The shame of rape means that these stories do not come out easily. 

REPORTER: So roughly, do you know how many prisoners are in there now? 

CAPTAIN LEICKER: We have approximately 2,200 detainees. And that includes all the other sections of the camp as well? Well, the bulk of them are here. We have a small number still in two of the Gansi compounds but as we do releases and transfers we're moving them all over into Redemption so eventually Redemption will be the only camp we run here. 

At the prison, I am allowed to film this low-security compound, but not the other compound at the other end of the complex. And I can't enter the cell block where the torture took place. That is under the command of military intelligence in charge of interrogations, and they will not speak to the press. I am not allowed to film or speak to prisoners. Lieutenant Colonel Essick is the commander of the military police in charge of the prison. 

REPORTER: A few detainees who have recently been released have told me that they've been told not to speak about conditions in the prisons, or they will be re-arrested. Do you know anything about that? 

LIEUTENANT COLONEL ESSICK: No, we don't tell them anything like that. In fact, we've been - since we've been here we've opened up our camp to anybody and everybody who wants to see us. We're not trying to hide anything, we're not telling detainees to say anything but other than what happened here, you know. So we don't tell detainees what to say or not to say once they leave here. 

The mistreatment of prisoners has led to a loss of moral authority for the occupying forces. But there are claims of other abuses of power by the US troops. Widespread stealing by American soldiers during raids are common knowledge in Iraq, but they are rarely reported. 

SHEIK SAMMI ABBAS AL ARAWI: I see the soldier American and go... 

Sheikh Sammi Abbas al Arawi is a former general in Saddam's army. He'd been imprisoned by Saddam Hussein. When the Americans arrived last year he reported to them and was given a letter acknowledging he'd been an enemy of the former regime and therefore a friend of the new one. He ran a construction company which had contracts with the coalition. Then the Americans raided his house and he says they stole US$65,000 from him. 

SHEIK SAMMI ABBAS AL ARAWI (Translation): The raid took place at 2am on the night of 1 March 2004. We were asleep at night when we heard the sound of explosions inside the house. I got up and came face to face with the American in the hallway. They tied us up and gathered the women and children in the kitchen, guarding them and aiming their weapons at them. After that they searched the house in a very ugly manner, like savages. They smashed all the televisions, electrical appliances like fridges and freezers and wooden things. And they stole $65,750 from me, and 15,350,000 Iraqi dinars and all 280 grams of the women's gold jewellery. 

The experience has changed his opinion of the Americans. Iraqis believe the money is either taken by the soldiers themselves or used by the Americans to pay informers. 

SHEIK SAMMI ABBAS AL ARAWI (Translation): God's mercy exists. Through your television I say to Bush, Rumsfeld and the commander of the coalition forces in Iraq... I hope they'll hear what I have to say. If they don't return the money looted from my place and compensate me materially and emotionally for my losses, I will resist the occupation with all my might. And I'll recruit my clan and all my friends to resist them. 

It is not an idle threat. The former general lives in the western outskirts of Baghdad where the population has long ceased to support the coalition. Attacks on the coalition happen every day here. This observation balloon is for surveillance of the roads. The local resistance try to shoot it down every day. 

MAN: John, see the signs of the fighting on the wall. 

Bullet holes scar the walls here from return fire from US convoys. These highways are where the resistance attacks the supply convoys. They kidnap truck drivers on this road and attack any vehicles associated with the coalition. A 4-wheel drive of the kind used by contractors, lies abandoned and the US troops have cordoned off the area. It looks like an assassination but we don't stop to investigate. That would make us a target. The new Iraqi Human Rights Minister, Bakhtiar Amin, was hand-picked by the Americans for the interim government. Legally the government is unable to prosecute US troops for their abuses. 

BAKHTIAR AMIN, IRAQI HUMAN RIGHTS MINISTER: We, from the Iraqi side, we were not apart of applying or executing any detentions. And we were not a part of the interrogation process either. 

His predecessor, Abdel Basset Turki, resigned in frustration in April this year over the conduct of the US forces. His brief was to investigate the crimes of the Saddam era but he found the crimes of the US occupation more pressing. 

ABDEL BASSET TURKI (Translation): The acceleration of violations in Iraq and the huge reactions did not allow us to be prisoners of the past only. Of course, they hoped violations wouldn't happen. But they preferred to focus on the previous era. Are they comparable? Of course they are. 

This is the command post where they brought the prisoners from this morning's raid. 

OFFICER: After we've captured them out in the field, we bring them into a central area and then we start asking them questions. If a person is going to be going back with us we'll end up taking them back later today, if not we'll take them home, apologise for taking them in. No harm, no foul. And then we let them go back to their families. 

A leaked Red Cross report earlier this year estimated that 70% to 90% of security detainees in Iraq were imprisoned by mistake. The US forces may well believe that their tactics will defeat the insurgency, but the man being taken away may be innocent and the US may be one step closer to losing their war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

Copyright: 

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Information Clearing House endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

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