Abu Ghraib grew from wretched conditions

October 20, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

Those "Support Our Troops" car magnets bother me for some reason. I think it's the implied rebuke - that since I'm driving around without one, I'm not supporting the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan as much as someone who has undertaken the heroic and self-sacrificing act of slapping a magnet on his or her car.

So I had to laugh when I spotted one variation, which encouraged, "Support the magnetic ribbon industry."

Just how hollow the support-our-troops sentiment has become was on full display at a hearing at Fort Meade yesterday, where testimony concluded in the case of the highest-ranking soldier charged with criminal violations for his role in the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse case. An Army investigating officer took testimony all week, weighing whether to recommend that Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, who headed the interrogation center at Abu Ghraib, be court-martialed.

While the treatment of the detainees was beyond shameful - those grainy, pornographic images of naked prisoners piled atop one another like cordwood or threatened with snarling military dogs are forever seared in the mind - what has been particularly striking at this week's hearing has been the description of the deplorable living conditions of the troops assigned to Abu Ghraib.

Not that it excuses their behavior - nothing could rationalize such depravity against other human beings - but if you need any more proof that the troops are not receiving adequate support, the testimony provided it.

"The most common word is austere," Edward J. Rivas, a chief warrant officer at Abu Ghraib, responded yesterday when asked to describe the troops' living conditions at the prison.

"Very, very austere" was the answer of Col. Steven Boltz, once the second-ranking military intelligence officer in Iraq, to a similar question.

Austere would be an understatement: They and another witness described a deteriorating, crowded complex on the scorching desert, with no air conditioning or much in the way of security or even bathing facilities. When Jordan arrived to head a new interrogation center, his search for somewhere to sleep in the crowded facility led him to a small room.

"It was a former urinal, sir," Rivas said in answer to an attorney's question. "It was in pretty bad shape."

Meanwhile, as the insurgency grew, more and more prisoners were "dumped" at Abu Ghraib, Boltz said, often without identification and inadequate space to house them.

At one point, interrogations were taking place under a tent, erected on the bare sand, which not only offered other detainees a full view of who might be cooperating with the Americans, but made the troops perfect targets for the daily fire that the camp came under. Just how insecure the facility was became clear on Sept. 20, 2003, when mortar fire rained on Abu Ghraib - injuring more than a dozen troops and killing "two of us," Rivas said.

Maybe it was a bad connection or a missed question - like the other witnesses yesterday, Rivas testified via speaker phone, in his case from Fort Dix, N.J. - but there was a brief silence when the attorney questioning him half-asked, half-noted that he was among the injured. When Rivas' voice came back, it seemed a little more halting.

What a festering, still spreading morass is Abu Ghraib. And yet, in the 2 1/2 years since we learned about the shocking mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at this prison west of Baghdad, the scandal has receded from the forefront of the news. There has been just light media coverage of Jordan's hearing, particularly compared to the earlier Abu Ghraib proceedings - such as the trial of Lynndie England, the reservist who was photographed mocking naked detainees, and who showed up at her hearing pregnant by another soldier from the prison.

And yet, even if Abu Ghraib has moved to the sidelines of our consciousness, another and very related story should remain front and center: As The Sun's military reporter David Wood has written, the worldwide outrage over what happened at Abu Ghraib sparked heightened anti-American violence in Iraq that is reaching tragic new heights. Even as the military considers what to do with Jordan, the former head of the Abu Ghraib interrogation center, back in Iraq, October is shaping up as the deadliest month for Americans since the war began. In just two days this week, from the first day of Jordan's hearing on Monday, to an Army announcement on Wednesday, the number of American troops killed this month in Iraq went from 58 to 70.

The administration's response? Stay the course.

If you want to support the troops, forget the old magnetic ribbons and argue for a new course.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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