Ups, downs of war

March 17, 2005

IRAQ'S FIRST freely elected parliament in 50 years convened yesterday in a ceremony of promise and hope that acknowledged the country's dual realities - occupation and war. This inaugural, while indeed historic, took place within the heavily fortified Green Zone as mortars exploded nearby. The gathering of Shiites and Kurds, the majority stakeholders in this assembly, and some Sunnis took place even though Iraqi leaders have yet to form a coalition government. Unity was their message, and the relentless insurgent attacks against Iraqis may ultimately bring that about. But nothing under way in Baghdad or Washington suggests that Iraq will cease, any time soon, to be a nation with foreign troops on its soil and ruthless insurgents killing civilians.

The inauguration of the parliament was the only "bright moment" on the Iraq front for the Bush administration yesterday. The president got word that yet another of its coalition partners is pulling out. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's decision to start withdrawing his country's 3,000 troops in September shouldn't come as a surprise. It follows the public outcry in Italy over the shooting death of an Italian security agent by U.S. forces this month. American soldiers fired on a car that was carrying the agent and an Italian journalist who had just been released from kidnappers after a month in captivity. The Italians have not been satisfied with the U.S. explanation of the shooting. Mr. Berlusconi has hedged the removal of the fourth-largest troop contingent - after the United States, Britain and South Korea - on Iraqis handling their own security.

But it's evident that U.S. troops, already overburdened, will have to account for the difference.

As Mr. Bush was responding to that news, the Pentagon was answering questions about the latest tally of detainees killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by American soldiers. More than a year after the scandal of detainee abuse at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, horrifying accounts of mistreatment continue to surface. The newest report identifies 26 Iraqi and Afghan prisoners who died in U.S. custody, the majority as a result of criminal homicide. The figure, reported by The New York Times, varies significantly from a Pentagon account just last week that stated only six prisoners had died as a result of confirmed abuse.

How many more questionable, potentially criminal, deaths do we not know about?

The fact that 18 of the 26 cases have been referred for prosecution or other action is some assurance that the military is carrying out its legal and moral responsibilities. It can't be any other way. The Pentagon insists detainee abuse is absolutely not tolerated. But the administration's record - from its early assertion that only a few rogue soldiers were to blame in the Abu Ghraib scandal to its policy shifts on torture and interrogation techniques - does not inspire confidence that the military recognizes the gravity of this issue and is doing all that it can to prevent prisoner abuse.

The reports of prisoner abuse and the inauguration of the Iraqi parliament represent two realities of this war that are reflected in public opinion. Iraqis may be better off since the fall of Saddam Hussein, but the cost of toppling the regime - in U.S. prestige and lost American and Iraqi lives - just keeps growing.

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