Weakened and shamefaced

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

Condemnation the world over of large-scale human rights abuses committed by U.S.-led forces in Iraq and the continuing resistance to the occupation have further weakened the Bush administration's credibility and its control over the fast deteriorating situation.

THE revelation of large-scale human rights abuses by the United States- and United Kingdom-led occupation forces in Iraq have made the position of the George W. Bush administration more untenable than before. Even a U.S. Army newspaper saw it fit to criticise the country's Defence Department's handling of the occupation. It took the prime-time release of a video on a U.S. television channel in the first week of May for the controversy to snowball into a major crisis for the Bush administration. The sight of President Bush and his Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apologising on television to the Iraqi people was not sufficient to make them forget the crimes committed during one year of the U.S.-led occupation.

Hours after Bush appeared on an Arabic television channel to express remorse, a car bomb went off outside the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad, killing six people including a U.S. soldier. Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric whose Mahdi army is fighting against the occupation, issued a call to all Iraqis to unite and throw out the occupying forces. "What sort of freedom and democracy can we expect from you when you take such joy in torturing Iraqi prisoners?," Sadr asked his supporters in the holy city of Kufa. In the second week of May, a U.S. hostage was beheaded by a group of militants. The gory incident was videotaped and shown on television the world over.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair continued to insist that the photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by U.K. troops published in a London-based newspaper were fabricated. On May 12, U.S. lawmakers were shown even more graphic photographs of Iraqi prisoners being brutalised and dehumanised. Rumsfeld warned that more evidence of U.S. atrocities would be in the public domain soon. The U.S. military establishment has also admitted that widespread abuse has taken place in Afghanistan too. Reports in the Arab media suggested that many Iraqi prisoners were transported to neighbouring countries that have strong links with the U.S. The notorious secret police, Mukhbarat, then used its time-tested methods to extract information from the detenus.

The U.S. Defence Department has admitted that the majority of the Iraqis who are in prison and who were tortured were innocent civilians, picked up during search-and-cordon missions. However, all this has not stopped President Bush from reiterating his confidence in the Defence Secretary. In fact, the Republican Party establishment told the President to ignore criticism the world over and go on with his task of "democratising" Iraq.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had warned the Bush administration about the atrocities being committed by the occupation forces. ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger had briefed the top U.S. leadership, including the Defence Secretary, the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser, about the rampant human rights abuses in Iraq during his visit to Washington in January. A senior Red Cross official told the media in the first week of May that the ICRC knew for a long time that "worse things than what was shown in the photos" were taking place at the Abu Ghraib prison. According to the official, several reports were forwarded to the U.S. and British governments about the human rights abuses. "The photos are certainly shocking but our reports are worse," said the official. The ICRC told the Bush administration that what was going on in the Abu Ghraib prison was "reprehensible".

The ICRC said that U.S. military police personnel moved unregistered Iraqi prisoners, known a "ghost detainees", around the Abu Ghraib jail to hide them from the ICRC. The U.S. Army's Major General Antonio Taguba's investigations into the abuses have substantiated the ICRC's contentions. Taguba described in detail how "ghost detainees" were moved around when the ICRC team was visiting the prison. The Geneva-based ICRC has described the practice as "deceptive, contrary to army doctrine, and in violation of international law". An ICRC report that appeared in the third week of May said that "prisoners were held completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness". The report said that U.S. military intelligence officers admitted that the methods of physical and psychological coercion used by the interrogators "appeared to be part of standard operational procedures by military intelligence personnel to obtain confessions and extract information". Amnesty International too brought out a report detailing various human rights violations committed by British forces in Iraq.

THE Bush administration admitted that many of the atrocities were committed under the supervision of the mercenaries or "contract workers", as the Western media prefer to call them. Companies dealing in mercenaries have been thriving since Bush assumed the U.S. presidency. Since 2001, the profits of Blackwater Security Consulting, a leading U.S. private security company, have increased by more than 300 per cent. The U.S. Army looked the other way when mercenaries in Iraq routinely violated international law. They regularly use armour-piercing, limited-penetration rounds, bullets banned by the U.S. military as they inflict horrific damage such as the shredding of internal organs. Rumsfeld and his cabal of "neo-con" advisers had succeeded in convincing President Bush that around 20,000 heavily armed mercenaries deployed in key areas would be sufficient to subdue the Iraqi resistance.

Bush had also asserted that the time-honoured Geneva conventions did not apply in the so-called war on terror. In fact, he boasted to the U.S. people that many "terrorists" were physically eliminated using unconventional ways. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States has ratified, states that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

In fact, Bush seemed to have been acting with foresight when the U.S. government refused to recognise the International Court for War Crimes. Moreover, the U.S. put tremendous pressure on Belgium to amend its Constitution as Belgian courts were on the verge of allowing cases of human rights abuses against the U.S. and Israel to be heard on its soil. The Bush administration threatened to move the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) headquarters from Brussels if Belgian courts went to the extent of indicting senior U.S. officials for war crimes.

Before the big scandal about human rights abuses became public, the Bush administration announced the posting of John Negroponte as the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Documented cases exist of Negroponte covering up the cases of torture and murder of left-wing activists and guerillas in Honduras when he was the U.S. Ambassador to the country. The torture methods being used in Iraq are similar to those used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Central America in the 1980s and earlier in Vietnam. A 1983 CIA manual advised interrogators to "manipulate the subject's environment, to create unpleasant or intolerable situations". The manual also recommends that prisoners be deprived of food and sleep, and made to maintain rigid positions, that they be threatened with rape or death and that their families be threatened. During Negroponte's tenure in Honduras from 1981-85, Washington ran its first successful "war on terror". The terror unleashed by the U.S.-backed Honduran military dictatorship was condemned by the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Negroponte was recently quoted as saying that "the American military is going to have the freedom to act in self-defence and they are going to be free to operate in Iraq as they best see fit".

THE serious cases of widespread human rights abuses have further galvanised the Iraqi resistance. U.S. officials admit that the photographs of Iraqis being abused have become recruiting posters for the resistance. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said recently that there was "general dismay and disgust" in the Arab world after the publication of the pictures. The U.S. Army was virtually forced to withdraw from Falluja in the first week of May after three weeks of brutal military siege of the city, which has been the epicentre of the Iraqi resistance. President Bush had earlier threatened to bring into play all the force he could command to bring the belligerent city into line. The U.S. forces did try their best to subdue the fighters in the city by destroying mosques, hospitals and other civilian structures. Many ultimatums were given to the Iraqi fighters to surrender. Ultimately, the will and perseverance of the resistance fighters prevailed.

The U.S. has now hastily drafted an Iraqi force comprised of soldiers who served the ousted Baathist government. The force is under the command of General Jasim Saleh, a senior officer who belonged to the elite Republican Guards under Saddam Hussein. He was accepted by the residents of Falluja after they were assured that U.S. forces would not patrol the town. The Iraqi Army officer has stated that he would prefer U.S. forces to stay out of Falluja and let Iraqi forces "deal with security". He has also rejected U.S. claims that there were "foreign fighters" in Falluja. On the other hand, the U.S. authorities are no longer demanding the handing over of "foreign fighters" or heavy weapons. Instead they have allowed the Sunnis to have their own militia like the two Kurd factions and the Shia Badr brigade.

The decision to deploy Iraqi forces in Falluja was in keeping with another major reversal of U.S. policy on Iraq - to halt the de-Baathification process. The U.S. announced that the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Army would be brought back and deployed for security work in sensitive cities such as Falluja. The Bush administration also gave the green signal for the re-induction of the civil servants and others sacked because of their membership in the Baath Party. These moves have not been popular with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, whose members blame the Baathists for all the ills of Iraq. They also do not want the Baath Party to re-emerge as a key player in Iraqi politics.

The U.S. is trying to bring around Moqtada al-Sadr to the negotiating table through the auspices of other influential Shia clerics. So far, Sadr has refused to give in. In a speech at a mosque in Najaf in the third week of May, the young cleric urged Iraqis to follow the example of the Vietnamese in their struggle against U.S. occupation. U.S. forces have been specifically targeting his strongholds in Baghdad and in the southern parts of the country. They claimed to have killed more than 40 fighters belonging to the Mahdi army in the first fortnight of May.

Sadr's militia, on its part, has spread its struggle up to Basra, the second biggest city in Iraq, which is under the control of British troops. Sadr said that the only way to earn the respect of the U.S. forces was to fight them as the citizens of Falluja did. The U.S. has toned down its rhetoric against him and is no longer talking of capturing him "dead or alive".

The recent events will not enthuse the international community or the United Nations to venture into Iraq. Some military analysts predict a messy U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq within six months. It is feared that the disclosure of new atrocities would also weaken the commitment of those countries that still have troops in Iraq. Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski said in the second week of May that "there was no justification for these type of actions. We need to apologise for those who have been so badly degraded". Poland has 2,500 soldiers in Iraq, whose deployment was unpopular in the country. The Polish government has hinted that it is considering the withdrawal of troops.

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