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The Abu Ghraib Scandal and the U.S. Occupation of Iraq

By John Cox

The U.S. public was shocked to learn at the end of April 2004 that American troops had abused and tortured helpless Iraqi prisoners. An April 28 broadcast of the popular CBS news show "60 Minutes," followed within a few days by the first of several articles by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, exposed the criminal conduct of members of the 372nd Military Police Company at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. The story might never have received much attention--many other credible accounts of U.S. abuses in Iraq had gone unnoticed--were it not for the video evidence of the crimes, taken by the perpetrators themselves.(1)

Following the initial revelations, two important reports came to light: a report prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in February 2004 and another compiled for the U.S. military by General Antonio Taguba at the beginning of the year. Following are some of the ICRC's findings:

  • The crimes were not confined to Abu Ghraib, but occurred in more than a dozen "internment facilities" in central and southern Iraq, "indicating a consistent pattern… of brutal behavior during arrest."
  • In making arrests, U.S. troops routinely entered homes "after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders" and destroying property. The soldiers would tie the hands of the "suspects" behind their backs; "sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people." This section of the report describes additional forms of physical abuse that routinely accompanied arrests: "pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles." The troops allowed little if any opportunity for "suspects" to retrieve personal items before being bundled away, and "in many cases personal belongings were seized during the arrest, with no receipt being issued."
  • "In almost all instances documented by the ICRC, arresting authorities provided no information about who they were [when making arrests], where their base was located, nor did they explain the cause of arrest. Similarly, they rarely informed the arrestee or his family where he was being taken and for how long, resulting in the de facto 'disappearance' of the arrestee for weeks or even months." (page 6)

And who was being detained and subjected to this treatment--terrorists, armed insurgents, common criminals? On the contrary, the ICRC report concludes that "between 70% and 90% of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake," according to Coalition intelligence officers themselves.(2)

For its part, the Taguba report documented these findings:

  • During the time of the investigation (October to December 2003), there were "numerous instances of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses." Following are some examples taken directly from Taguba's report:
  • Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees; forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing; arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them; positioning a naked detainee on a box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture; placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee's neck and having a female soldier pose for a picture; a male MP guard having sex with a female detainee.
  • Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; threatening detainees with a charged 9mm pistol; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick; using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.(3)

What We Have Not Yet Heard: Abuses of Women, Children

The brutal treatment of female detainees was largely overlooked in the U.S. press coverage of the prisoner-abuse scandal. In December 2003 a woman prisoner at Abu Ghraib smuggled a note out of the prison alleging that "U.S. guards had been raping women detainees," and several were now pregnant. Further, "women had been forced to strip naked in front of men," reported Iraqi lawyer Amal Kadham Swadi.(4) Swadi had earlier visited another U.S. detention center--at al-Kharkh, a former police compound in Baghdad--where she spoke with another woman who said she had been raped. "Several American soldiers had raped her. She had tried to fight them off and they had hurt her arm. She showed me the stitches." In a Los Angeles Times article, Tracy Wilkinson reported: "One woman told her attorney she was forced to disrobe in front of male prison guards. After much coaxing, another woman described how she was raped by U.S. soldiers. Then she fainted" from the duress of recounting her experience.(5) The British Guardian newspaper reported , "an Iraqi woman in her 70s had been harnessed and ridden like a donkey at Abu Ghraib and another coalition detention center after being arrested last July."(6) The Taguba report mentioned briefly that a videotape existed of "a male MP guard having sex with a female detainee," yet very few journalists pursued this obvious reference to rape.

Amnesty International has expressed its concern over "numerous human rights violations against Iraqi juveniles, including detentions, torture and ill-treatment, and killings," and an article in the Scottish Sunday Herald determined that at least 107 children were still being held several weeks after the onset of the prisoner-abuse scandal.(7) An Iraqi television reporter saw the children's wing of the prison when he was arrested and held for 74 days while making a documentary. The reporter, Suhaib Badr-Addin al-Baz, said that he saw "boys, under the age of puberty" being held. "There were certainly hundreds of children in this camp." He recalled the beating by Americans of a 12-year-old girl, and added that he "heard her cries and whimpering daily." This "caused other prisoners to cry as they listened to her." Al-Baz also mentioned the case of an "ill 15-year-old boy who was soaked repeatedly with hoses until he collapsed. Guards then brought in the child's father with a hood over his head. The boy collapsed again."(8) One former prisoner told investigators that he witnessed the rape of a boy aged about 15 in Abu Ghraib.(9) In a speech given in San Francisco in July, Seymour Hersh also asserted that young males were raped by U.S. soldiers: "The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling, and the worst part is the soundtrack, of the boys shrieking."(10)

An internal Army investigation released its findings on August 25, 2004, listing several additional examples of the torture and sexual abuse of women and children. The Army report, called the Fay Report after one of the officers responsible for the investigation, disclosed "an alleged rape committed by a U.S. translator and observed by a female soldier, and the alleged sexual assault of a female detainee."(11) The Fay Report also described the use of "unmuzzled dogs in a sadistic game to frighten detained Iraqi teenagers to force the youths to urinate or defecate on themselves."(12)

Who Was Responsible?

U.S. government officials quickly created their own version of the prisoner-abuse scandal, a story that many political commentators were all too quick to promote: The errors were committed by a group of six or seven poorly educated enlisted personnel, who were not representative of the military or its mission in Iraq. President Bush spoke of "a few bad American troops who dishonored our country," while New York Times columnist William Safire ascribed the acts to a "handful" of bad soldiers.(13)

But who was responsible for the abuse of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Seymour Hersh interviewed several current and retired intelligence officials while exploring this question for an article in the May 24 New Yorker. Hersh reported that Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who had been the commander of the military prison at Guantánamo, was sent to Iraq in August 2003 to make recommendations on interrogation procedures there. "In a report marked secret, Miller recommended that military police at the prison [Abu Ghraib] be 'actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.'"(14) Miller briefed U.S. commanders in Iraq on the methods used at Guantánamo, such as sleep deprivation, stress positions for agonizing lengths of time, and exposure to extremes of hot and cold. A former intelligence official said that the aim of Miller's recommendations was abundantly clear: "It means treat the detainees like shit until they will sell their mother for a blanket, some food without bugs in it and some sleep."(15) Hersh reported that Donald Rumsfeld and Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary for Intelligence, went even further than Miller's proposals, importing into Iraq a "special-access program" employed in Afghanistan that expanded the range of techniques to include physical abuse and sexual humiliation. "The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists," Hersch concluded, "but in a decision approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld" to expand an operation into Iraq that "encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation" in order to "generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq."(16)

But the responsibility rests not only with Rumsfeld, Cambone, and the small number of other soldiers and officials directly or indirectly tied to the Abu Ghraib debacle; it rests on all the architects of this war and occupation. The rampant abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners was not an aberration, as we have been told repeatedly. To the contrary, it was simply a microcosm of a war and an occupation that has been distinguished from its first day by brutal methods and indifference to loss of life. In addition to the one thousand U.S. service members whose deaths have been reported, at least twelve thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed by the U.S. war to date, according to the most conservative estimates; perhaps tens of thousands of Iraqi combatants have died, including Hussein's unfortunate conscripts in the early weeks of the war.(17)

A war that began in hubris and defiance of international law and opinion--and that has featured, among many other atrocities, the widespread shootings of civilians at checkpoints and a furious assault on the population of Fallujah in April 2004 that killed hundreds of non-combatants--could not fail to produce such a monstrosity as Abu Ghraib.


1. New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller admitted that his newspaper only picked up the story because of the sensational photographic evidence. "Any honest editor will give you the same answer. It's the pictures; that's what did it," he was quoted in an article in the American Journalism Review, adding, "But it shouldn't require visual drama to make us pay attention to something like this." Sherry Ricchiardi, "Missed Signals," AJR August/September 2004.

2. The ICRC report is available at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/2004/icrc_report_iraq_feb2004.htm

3. The Taguba report is available at: http://news.findlaw.com/cnn/docs/iraq/tagubarpt.html

4. Luke Harding, "The other prisoners," The Guardian, 20 May 2004. Swadi's efforts to investigate the plight of women in Abu Ghraib were frustrated. When she last tried to visit women at Abu Ghraib, "The U.S. guards refused to let us in. When we complained, they threatened to arrest us."

5. "A Double Ordeal for Female Prisoners" Tracy Wilkinson 11 May 2004, Los Angeles Times.

6. Luke Harding, "The other prisoners," The Guardian 20 May 2004. This incident was investigated by a British Labour Party MP, who found it to be true; the elderly Iraqi had been held for six weeks without charge.

7. Neil Mackay, "Iraq's Child Prisoners," Sunday Herald, 1 August 2004

8. Ibid.

9. Osha Gray Davidson, "The Secret File of Abu Ghraib," Rolling Stone, 31 July 2004. The witness said that the rape was videotaped by a female soldier. This witness, Kasim Mehaddi Hilas, also reported that he saw another boy sodomized with a phosphoric light, also videotaped by the same soldier. Hilas's sworn testimony is contained in the nearly 6,000 pages of classified annexes to the Taguba report.

10. Charles Arthur, "Secret film shows Iraq prisoners sodomised," The Independent, 16 July 2004.

11. "Latest Report on Abu Ghraib: Abuses of Iraqi Prisoners 'Are, Without Question, Criminal'," no author, New York Times, 26 August 2004.

12. Eric Schmitt, "Abuses at Prison Tied to Officers in Intelligence," New York Times, 26 August 2004. An unclassified, 177-page version of the Fay Report (also known as the Fay-Jones Report) is available on-line at: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/us_law/PDF/abuse/040825fay.pdf.

13. William Safire, "The Cruelest Month," New York Times, 3 May 2004.

14. Hersh, "The Gray Zone," The New Yorker, 24 May 2004.

15. Davidson, "The Secret File of Abu Ghraib."

16. Seymour M. Hersh, "The Gray Zone," The New Yorker, 24 May 2004. Hersh has published a more thorough account of his findings in his book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (New York: HarperCollins), released in September 2004.

17. A group called Iraq Body Count maintains a tally of Iraqi civilian deaths: http://www.iraqbodycount.net

An Iraqi political group called the People's Kifah (Struggle for Hegemony) released what it called a "detailed study" of civilian deaths at the end of July 2004, which estimated that 37,000 civilians have been killed. In October 2004 The Lancet, the esteemed medical journal, published a study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University that concludes that as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians may have died due to the U.S. invasion and war. The report is available on-line at: http://www.thelancet.com/journal/vol364/iss9445/early_online_publication.

John Cox is completing his Ph.D. in European History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is an adjunct History professor at George Mason University. Cox earned his M.A. at Brandeis and has been active for many years in the antiwar and other progressive movements. Please contact him at coxj@email.unc.edu

Torture, American Style