In Iraq, troops face fallout of scandal

Morale: Some voice concerns on safety and perceptions

others try to focus on their mission.

May 14, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - If he is lucky, Sgt. Eric Lund gets to talk to his family back home in Tacoma, Wash., a few times each week, and then only for a few minutes.

He wants to talk about home. His parents want to talk about Abu Ghraib.

Lund said he is tired of a scandal to which he is in no way connected. But the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison affects every American soldier in Iraq.

"It doesn't matter how bad the bad guys are," said Lund, a 25-year-old Army reservist assigned to a security detail in central Baghdad. "We have to be better. If one of our guys messes up, we're all bad."

Lund said it seems as though the prison abuse is all anyone is talking about, at least back home. He said that during his last two calls to his parents, "they wanted to talk about Abu Ghraib. I want to talk about what's happening there, and they want to talk about what's happening here. They want to talk about the bad stuff."

A group of soldiers interviewed this week revealed mixed emotions about the mistreatment of prisoners and the photographs that showed the abuse to the world in graphic detail.

Some soldiers were indifferent. Others were angry because they said it put them in more danger. One soldier said he had never heard of the case, and then remembered seeing one photo of a female soldier holding a leash attached to a naked prisoner lying on the floor. A friend had sent it to him by e-mail.

Senior military commanders in Iraq and Washington have apologized daily for the abuse and announced a series of public military trials, the first of which is scheduled to begin next week at the Baghdad Convention Center.

Some of the most stirring comments came during a news conference Tuesday with Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, which is engaged in heavy fighting across southern Iraq with insurgents opposed to the occupation. He had served in Saudi Arabia beginning in 2001.

Undermines the ties

"I have spent three years trying to convince Arabs in general, and Muslims in particular, that the United States and Americans were interested in their well-being, wanted to be partners, lived a life of values," he said. "We're not here to pervert Islam. We're not here to steal their oil, and that we really meant what we said."

"And this undermines that," Dempsey said of the prison abuse. "I mean, it can't help but undermine the relationship when the values we say we stand for are on display in such a negative way."

Dempsey said his commanders provide him with what he calls "texture reports" - subjective analysis of how well the troops are liked. They include whether children wave at soldiers and whether tribal leaders maintain contacts.

Before Abu Ghraib, Dempsey said, "we were probably at a seven" on a scale of one to 10. "I'd say we're down to about a five." He said the prison scandal broke at a particularly bad time - just as the fighting that had effectively stopped rebuilding efforts began to subside.

Dempsey said soldiers must now "consciously try to become more visible and more engaging so that we can try to undo some of the harm that's been done."

Less interaction

But soldiers in Baghdad do not have the same interaction with Iraqis as they did in the months after major combat ended and they pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in the central square.

Then, soldiers were out in public on patrols, guarding hospitals and gas stations. Now, as attacks have grown more frequent and deadly, soldiers have retreated to eight bases in the city. Only a few are visible at checkpoints. At other locations, armed contractors provide perimeter protection.

Soldiers on patrol race through streets, often going against traffic - it is dangerous for them to remain stationary. Much interaction with Iraqis is at staged events, such as refurbishing schools or distributing food to the needy.

Army officials refused to allow a reporter to spend time with troops to discuss the repercussions of Abu Ghraib. But several soldiers assigned to guard the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, frequented by foreigners and often targeted for attack, spoke freely about the scandal.

Tuning out the reports

Army Sgt. Troy White, with the 1st Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas, said he tries to ignore news reports about Abu Ghraib. "I go out every day, and if something happens, it happens," he said. "I'm not angry with those soldiers, and I don't think about them. I just focus on my mission."

Spc. Aaron Humphrey, also with the 1st Cavalry, said he saw only one photo - involving the leash - but also tries to ignore the story.

"I don't watch TV at home; why should I watch it here?" he said. "I'm not trying to justify what they did. It was wrong. But I think this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion."

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