Rumsfeld pledges justice at Abu Ghraib

Defense chief meets with guards and officers, but no Iraqi detainees

May 14, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, entering the heart of the global furor over the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees, walked inside the faded yellow walls and razor wire of Abu Ghraib prison yesterday to pledge that the world would see America mete out punishment openly and freely to any soldier guilty of abuse.

"In recent months we've seen abuses here, under our responsibility, and it's been a body blow for all of us," Rumsfeld said. "The people who engaged in abuses will be brought to justice. The world will see how a free system, a democratic system, functions and operates transparently, with no cover-up."

On a whirlwind visit that was kept secret until his arrival in Baghdad, Rumsfeld was then driven around Abu Ghraib, passing just outside the wall of the "hard tier" cellblock where the abuses occurred, and were photographed, late last year.

Hundreds of detainees rushed toward the concertina wire barriers of one sector of the camp, aware that Rumsfeld was rolling past in an armored bus.

Most of the detainees stood mutely in the dusty, windswept compound. Some waved clothes, some jeered. A few held up signs or T-shirts carrying hand-lettered messages in English.

"What are you going to do about scandl?" said one. "Why we are here?" said another. A third read, "Most of us are inocents."

Rumsfeld spoke with no detainees, but in meetings with prison commanders and a large gathering of military police who replaced those serving during the abuses, the defense secretary said any acts of violence or humiliation had been carried out by a tiny fraction of the U.S. military in Iraq.

"It doesn't represent America," Rumsfeld said. "It doesn't represent American values. It doesn't represent the values of each of you here in this room."

In a move that is as practical as it is symbolic, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the new deputy commanding general for detention operations in Iraq, said yesterday that all prisoners under U.S. control would be moved out of the old Abu Ghraib structures and into new facilities by the end of this month.

The new "Camp Redemption" will be within the Abu Ghraib compound, but the old prison blocks will be solely for criminals incarcerated by the new Iraqi government.

Abu Ghraib prison was for decades the scene of murder and torture under dictator Saddam Hussein, a place, Rumsfeld said, where "thousands and thousands and thousands of human beings were mistreated, tortured and killed."

But the prison has become a symbol of abuse by U.S. military jailers as well. As the June 30 date for returning sovereignty to a new government in Baghdad approaches, Bush administration officials express concerns that the signature image of the war may no longer be cheering Iraqis toppling Hussein's statue in Baghdad, but might become U.S. soldiers laughing and giving thumbs-up signs as Iraqi detainees are abused.

"We care about the detainees being treated right," Rumsfeld said. "We care about soldiers behaving right. We care about command systems working."

Rumsfeld acknowledged that his one-day trip would be scrutinized by people throughout Iraq, including some who might claim jurisdiction to try the U.S. soldiers in their own courts once sovereignty is returned.

"The United States government is going to take care of the people who end up being convicted of some wrongdoing," Rumsfeld said. "The justice system of the United States is serious, professional, and it's under way."

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew with Rumsfeld to Iraq. That was another sign of the unusual nature of the trip, as the Pentagon's senior civilian leader and top military officer rarely travel on the same aircraft.

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