The Last Fig Leaf

The US lost the last fig leaf for its continuing occupation of Iraq with the release of pornographic photos showing the physical and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. After one year in Iraq, the Arab world we were supposed to be impressing with our commitment to freedom and democratic values now believes that Saddam's torture chambers are simply under new management.

From what we've learned so far, neither Saddam Hussein nor anyone under his control had anything to do with al Qaeda or the terrorists responsible for 9/11. This was the most far-fetched reason for invading Iraq, but the Bush administration played it to inflame public opinion against Iraq. Bush's defenders continue to raise this spurious pretext to excuse the inhumane treatment of prisoners.

Next, lack of weapons of mass destruction undermined the pretext that the invasion was necessary to pre-empt the use of those imagined weapons. Bush was repeatedly warned off by UN inspectors who failed to find evidence at sites identified by US intelligence sources, who turned out to be Iraqi exiles who were interested in returning to Baghdad with the US Army to secure a piece of the action in post-Saddam Iraq.

When the WMDs proved to be mirages, the Bushites rationalized that the invasion was still justified because it freed the Iraqi people from the brutal Ba'athist regime. But after US troops allowed mobs to loot everything except the oil industry, Bush's proconsul named a puppet government, put off elections indefinitely and allowed multinational corporations to buy up Iraqi industry at fire-sale prices. Halliburton and other foreign corporations with foreign crews were brought in and they were paid billions of US taxpayer dollars to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure -- mainly the oilfields -- while millions of Iraqis remain unemployed. And reliable electricity and water service is still unavailable in most of the country.

When Iraqi fighters launched guerrilla strikes against the US occupying forces, the US started taking hostages from the families of formerly high-ranking Ba'athists and suspected insurgents. As Col. David Hogg, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, told the Washington Post (7/28/03) "tougher methods" were being used to gather intelligence. For instance, his troops picked up the wife and daughter of an Iraqi lieutenant general. They left a note: "If you want your family released, turn yourself in." Such tactics were justified, Hogg said, because, "It's an intelligence operation with detainees, and these people have info."

As more Iraqis were detained, military intelligence officers were put in charge of the jails and "civilian contractors" had an unofficial role in breaking down the prisoners for interrogation. Prisoners were routinely stripped, paraded in the cellblocks and photographed as part of the procedure of breaking them down to talk. According to some prisoners, beatings and other rough handling were part of the routine.

When the porn photos initially were dismissed as the work of a few MPs from one unit, Seymour Hersh, the journalist who exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, looked a little deeper and reported in the New Yorker that mistreatment of prisoners appeared to be widespread in Iraq. The International Red Cross and human-rights groups repeatedly complained during the past year about the American military's treatment of Iraqi prisoners, with little success. Hersh wrote that photographing prisoners in degrading positions, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, seems to have been not random but, rather, part of the dehumanizing interrogation process. He also noted that Hayder Sabbar Abd, who claimed, convincingly, to be one of the mistreated Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib photographs, told Ian Fisher of the New York Times that his ordeal had been recorded, almost constantly, by cameras, which added to his humiliation. He remembered how the camera flashed repeatedly as soldiers told to him to masturbate and beat him when he refused. He was held for six months before he was released.

Coalition intelligence officers reportedly told the Red Cross that between 70% and 90% of Iraqi detainees were brought in by mistake. Most were not terrorists but were caught up in dragnets looking for Saddam or other top members of his regime. Some claimed they were arrested because of misunderstandings, bogus claims by personal enemies, mistaken identity or simply for having been at the wrong place at the wrong time. An Iraqi newsman with the al Jazeera TV network was arrested and held for 74 days, including beatings, strippings and other rough treatment, after he showed up with his camera after a convoy ambush.

Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria summed up the damages: "Leave process aside: the results are plain. On almost every issue involving postwar Iraq -- troop strength, international support, the credibility of exiles, de-Ba'athification, handling Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- Washington's assumptions and policies have been wrong. By now most have been reversed, often too late to have much effect. This strange combination of arrogance and incompetence has not only destroyed the hopes for a new Iraq. It has had the much broader effect of turning the United States into an international outlaw in the eyes of much of the world."

Congressional investigators don't need to get to the bottom of what went on at Abu Ghraib. They need to get to the top of what happened. If the White House didn't know what was going on in interrogation rooms in Gitmo and Baghdad, it hardly speaks well of the president's leadership. If Rumsfeld failed to tell Bush about the problems, Rumsfeld should have been fired when Bush found out he had been kept in the dark. If he did tell Bush about the problems, well, it's just another Bush lie.

As retired Gen. Wes Clark noted, it is fundamentally dishonest for George Bush to cross the country touting his leadership as commander in chief and then deny knowledge or accountability when bad things happen on his watch.

Republicans who impeached a president based on a stained blue dress offer little more than apologies for a president who diverted US resources away from the war on terror to invade a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11. Instead of firing Rumsfeld, Bush lauded him as the greatest defense secretary in history. Now his Republican apologists are blaming the press for publishing the photos and Democrats for making a big deal about the abuse of "terrorists."

Are the Democrats playing politics? Hello? Is the US a democracy? Are we not ultimately responsible for the reckless and criminal actions of the president and our military?

The Bush administration argues that even the US Supreme Court has no business second-guessing presidential power to lock up indefinitely any US citizen suspected of being a terrorist, without regard to the Bill of Rights. And foreigners who are picked up on a foreign battlefield may be interned indefinitely in US gulags around the world without regard to the Geneva Convention.

The UN can't stop them. Neither can the International Criminal Court. The only international organization Bush respects, the World Trade Organization, lacks jurisdiction. Only the American voter can stop Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al.

John Kerry needs to pledge to get out of Iraq as quickly as he can. Then he should focus his campaign on populist economic issues that will help working people who all too often have fallen for the Republicans' cultural "wedge issues" and foreign diversions. He also needs a running mate who will double as the campaign's attack dog. John Edwards, with a trial lawyer's instinct for the jugular, fits the bill. Edwards should be chosen sooner rather than later.

Then put the dogs of war back on their leashes; we can afford their havoc no longer. -- JMC

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