Iraq prison commander `embarrassed, ashamed'

Improvements are made, but Abu Ghraib is still a grim, primitive place

May 11, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq - The brown paint is fresh, and it glistens even in the dim light. The air is cool and moves with the help of whirring ceiling fans. There is a hallway to the right and to the left --- known as cell blocks 1A and 1B.

Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the commander of Abu Ghraib prison, points to the right, to 1A. "This," he says without emotion, "is where we believe all of the pictures were taken."

The photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners have been seen worldwide, and for the U.S. military in Iraq, yesterday was another day of apologies, another attempt to stop a scandal from growing, another attempt to salvage dignity after the abuses that have undermined almost every aspect of the occupation of Iraq.

Officials showed reporters a new visitors center that will accommodate 200 visits a day, up from the current 30, allowing each of the detainees to see a relative twice a month for an hour. Before, the standard was one visit every six months.

Army officials said they have fired the food contractor because of complaints by inmates. They have built an infirmary where doctors perform elective surgery for detainees with chronic problems.

But the prison complex built by Saddam Hussein remains a dingy, forbidding place of muddied passageways and damaged buildings. Iraqi detainees live outdoors sheltered from the hot sun by tents, and sleep on thin blankets on wooden boards.

Miller said there has been a complete turnover of personnel since mid-January, when the Army began investigating abuses that became known two weeks ago, with the broadcast and publication of photos of soldiers mistreating hooded, naked prisoners.

According to Miller, everyone working at the prison when the abuses occurred has been reassigned out of Iraq, in response to an Army investigative report that describes a complete breakdown in command.

But every soldier interviewed, from sergeants to the commanding general, arrived at Abu Ghraib at the beginning of the year. And few said they were in a position to compare conditions today with the situation that existed before they arrived.

Col. Foster Payne, commander of the 504th Military Intelligence Battalion based at Fort Hood, Texas, arrived in February, but he said he was not told of the investigations and learned of the abuse only from news reports.

Col. David Quantock, head of the 16th Military Police Brigade based at Fort Bragg, N.C., who oversees prison security, said only this of the recent past at the prison: "The standards were not anywhere near what I thought they should be."

During the 2 1/2 -hour tour, Miller repeatedly found himself apologizing for what had happened in the cellblocks. "I am embarrassed and ashamed," he said at one point, adding that the problems grew from "a big leadership failure."

Miller ran the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. On a visit to Iraq last summer, he recommended that interrogators and military police "set conditions" for favorable results - which some soldiers have said set the tone for abuse. At a news conference this week, Miller denied that his orders could have been interpreted that way.

"I will tell you that those recommendations that we made were based on a system that provided humane detention and excellent interrogation all within the bounds of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions," he said. "And I stand by those recommendations and many of those, to be frank with you, are in the process of being implemented today."

Most of the prisoners here live in tent blocks, where each tent holds 40 inmates, the tents pitched atop wooden floors. Portable outhouses are lined up against one fence. There are concrete bunkers to protect inmates in case of mortar attacks by insurgents, and each tent is surrounded by sandbags stacked three-high to guard against shrapnel. Twenty-eight mortar rounds hit the camp April 20, killing 22 detainees and wounding 91.

Miller said that a copy of the Geneva Conventions is posted in each tent block, in English and in Arabic, a practice required under international law but, according to the army investigative report, not done under the previous command.

Reporters were at first not allowed off the bus that brought them into the prison, but the inmates found a way to get their message across: As the bus stopped, hundreds of detainees lined up along a fence. They were dusty and dirty, dressed in ragged clothes and drenched in sweat. Some held water bottles; others gestured to their mouths as if they were begging for food.

One man held up a yellow sheet with a plea in misspelled English: "What are you going to do about the scandl??" Others had written messages on their T-shirts. "Why are we here?" one said. "There is a lot hidden," another message said. A third shirt read, "Prisoners can't talk. When are we going to be released? Our families are waiting."

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