Shameful acts

April 30, 2004

TELEVISION FOOTAGE of the mistreatment of Iraqi war prisoners by their American captors was shockingly disturbing and hauntingly reminiscent of the horror stories from the regime of Saddam Hussein. The only solace we can take from the episode aired by CBS's 60 Minutes II is the knowledge that the U.S. military has brought to bear the force of the law against the accused Army reservists, most of whom were assigned to a Maryland-based company.

But the incident demands further investigation. According to the CBS report, the reservists were assisting military intelligence interrogators at the Abu Ghraib prison, infamous as a torture chamber in the years the Iraqi dictator ruled. One reservist recommended for court martial, Staff Sgt. Chip Frederick, complained in a CBS interview that his training was inadequate and guidance from superiors was not forthcoming. He also said the prison was woefully understaffed and at one point seven military personnel were responsible for 900 prisoners.

Sergeant Frederick's statements raise serious questions about the work of the military police in Iraq, the techniques used to question Iraqi prisoners, their compliance with the Geneva Conventions and overall staffing and supervision at the prison.

The Army last month reported that 17 soldiers in Iraq, including a brigadier general, had been removed from duty for mistreating prisoners. But it wasn't until 60 Minutes II aired its broadcast Wednesday night that the country learned of the specifics of that alleged mistreatment.

The television footage was graphic: One photo showed a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box and appearing to be connected to wires. The Army explained that the Iraqi prisoner understood that he would be electrocuted if he stepped off the box, according to the broadcast.

Of the 17 reservists implicated in the mistreatment, 14 were assigned to the 372nd Military Police Company based in Cumberland and are facing criminal or administrative charges. A company like that usually includes police and correctional officers with some years of service who would be familiar with the basics of securing prisoners. That raises even more questions about the accused soldiers' behavior and the procedures at Abu Ghraib prison.

The shameful photographs are being broadcast throughout the Arab world, fueling even more resentment of the U.S. presence in Iraq and fomenting anti-Americanism among people already suspicious of this country's motives there.

What distinguishes the United States from many nations in the Arab world is its system of laws. Historically, when Americans in uniform - whether police officers or military personnel, whether at home or abroad - have engaged in shameful or unlawful behavior, they have been prosecuted and, if found guilty, punished. But punishing these soldiers shouldn't close the book on the events at Abu Ghraib. The Pentagon must be held accountable if the military failed to provide the training, staffing, supervision and leadership required to ensure that prisoners of war are treated humanely.

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