News and opinions on situation in Iraq
15/06/04 Torture in Abu Ghraib The Bigger Picture By Kareem M. Kamel
Volume 4, Number 23

Researcher – International Relations


     “A year ago I [gave a speech]… saying that we had achieved an important objective, accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein. As a result, there are no longer torture chambers or mass graves or rape rooms in Iraq.”1 US President George W. Bush, April 30, 2004 

    “It is no secret at all, there are many Israeli experts on torture in Iraq… Here in Israel, it is an ugly occupation, and Israel doesn’t make any pretensions about it. But in Iraq, the United States is murdering, humiliating, torturing and raping the Iraqis under the rubric of freedom and democracy.”2 Talab al-Sanai, Israeli-Arab Knesset Member  

The “Republic of Fear” lives on in Abu Ghraib
The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 was hailed by many commentators as signaling the dawn of a new era of freedom and democracy in Iraq. Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria suggested that “Saddam Hussein’s capture is a great and pivotal event. The ‘Republic of Fear’ is dead.” Zakaria was alluding to Kanan Makiya’s book, The Republic of Fear, which explained that the most powerful force maintaining the despotic Baa’thist regime – more than brute strength – was “an all-embracing atmosphere of fear” that pervaded every level of Iraqi society.3 Six months on, Zakaria’s aspiration have failed to materialize – Iraq has turned into a hotbed of anti-US activity, and the practices of the occupation forces against the Iraqis are increasingly reminiscent of Saddam’s brutality. In many ways, the “Republic of Fear” lives on.

The world was offered a glimpse of US abuses manifested in their most explicit form, when CBS television’s “60 Minutes II” program screened graphic images of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and sexually humiliated by American troops at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. The photographs, which show US soldiers – men and women – smiling, laughing or giving thumbs up signs alongside naked Iraqi prisoners or attaching electrodes to the extremities of an Iraqi detainee, exposed the sadistic and brutal methods employed by American forces against Iraqi captives. Iraqi prisoners were routinely stripped, made to pose with women’s underwear over their heads, and kept naked in dark, empty cells.4

The pictures also suggested that those who tortured Iraqi prisoners felt they had nothing to hide from their military superiors. Indeed, there are reports that senior officials in military intelligence encouraged such treatment to create better conditions for interrogation, and that many soldiers were ordered to “soften up” detainees.5 More disturbing is a Red Cross report which indicated that between 70% and 90% of Iraqi detainees had been arrested by mistake.6

Despite the Pentagon’s assertion that “there is no evidence of systematic abuse” in US detention facilities, as General Richard Myers put it, Amnesty International says it had received “scores” of reports of ill-treatment of detainees, suggesting a “pattern of torture” perpetrated by coalition troops.7 A confidential fifty-three-page report written by Major General Antonio M. Taguba was completed in late February. Specifically, Taguba found that between October and December of 2003 there were numerous instances of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib.8

Systematic and illegal abuse of detainees, Taguba reported, was perpetrated by soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, and also by members of the American intelligence community. Taguba cites as evidence the testimony of Sgt. Javal Davis and others, who related that military intelligence was telling them to “loosen this guy up for us,” to “make sure this guy has a bad night” and to “give him the treatment.”9 Taguba describes how military-intelligence officials even complimented one of the charged MPs, Spc. Charles Graner Jr., on his handling of prisoners with statements like, “Good job, they’re breaking down real fast.”10  

Taguba’s report listed some of the abuses:
Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.11

Rogue Empire  

US officers reviewed Israeli tactics used in the brutal assault on Jenin.

America’s invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, its efforts to legitimize unilateral pre-emptive action and its contempt for international organizations and international law have illustrated the nature of America’s leadership of the current world order and its determination to set itself as a nation above the law. The US is now widely perceived in the international community as a country which proclaims moral and legal ideals, seeking to impose them on others but failing to adhere to them itself. The Bush administration’s refusal to make its troops subject to the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court is further evidence of America its double-standards. 

In Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, more than 700 detainees from 44 countries have been subjected to physical abuse, sensory deprivation and constant exposure to bright light. The captives have been kept beyond the reach of international justice for over two years. Despite the fact that the Third Geneva Convention requires that any dispute about a prisoner’s status be decided by a “competent tribunal,” the Bush administration unilaterally decided that all Guantanamo prisoners were “unlawful combatants.”12 

Prior to the Guantanamo Bay incident, US troops alongside Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s forces took part in the killing of several hundred, possibly thousands, of Taliban POWs being transported in container lorries near Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. Some reports indicate that as many as 8,000 surrendering Taliban soldiers were never seen again and that US Special Forces instructed Dostum’s men to “get rid of the bodies before satellite pictures can be taken.”13

The conditions in Iraqi jails, where over 18,000 prisoners are being held, are replicated in a network of US-run concentration camps around the world, in places like Diego Garcia and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.14 Hundreds of “terrorism suspects” have been held at overseas CIA interrogation centers which are completely off-limits to reporters, lawyers and outside agencies. Others have been transferred to US allies with dubious human rights records in the Middle East for further interrogation.15 According to the US State Department itself, many of those governments routinely torture detainees.

Most US administration officials and congressmen criticized the prisoner abuses on the grounds that they tarnished the “image” of the United States internationally, and that such treatment might endanger US troops by setting a precedent that would encourage insurgents to treat American detainees similarly. The officials were mainly concerned with the consequent media fallout, rather than with how such abuses affected the Iraqi people. Had those pictures been concealed from the international media and their existence denied, it is highly unlikely the abuses would have been stopped.

Maj Gen Antonio Taguba’s report revealed shocking abuses
Similar contempt for the media was reflected in US General John Abizaid’s criticism of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya for reporting that US marines were targeting civilians in Fallujah.16 United States’ officials were more angered by the media’s display of dead Iraqis than with the actual killing of 600 civilians in less than three weeks.

It is striking that the US administration expects Muslims to be killed and tortured in silence, while images and video footage of September 11 must remain omnipresent in the media.

The punishments that were meted out to the perpetrators of prisoner abuses were administered by the US, rather than by an independent Iraqi court or an international tribunal. This sends a message to the Iraqis and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world: The US will continue to act as judge, jury and executioner, and in its role as the global law-maker and sheriff, it will set the rules and act alone.

When US diplomacy failed to secure a UN Security Council resolution that would legitimize military action against Iraq, the US formed a “coalition” and went to war anyway. More importantly, the war on Iraq was based on false pretenses: There were no weapons of mass destruction, and no Saddam-al-Qaeda links were ever confirmed. In light of the prisoner abuse scandal, even the “moral” objectives of freedom and democracy that the US claimed it wanted to bring to Iraq proved to be illusory.

The United States & Israel – Partners in Crime

For many US officials, the mere suggestion of a common US-Israeli design for the Middle East or any reference to collaboration between both states on Iraq is usually met with outright disdain and rejection. Some would even respond that the Arabs are prone to thinking in terms of conspiracy theories, blaming everything on a fictitious “Western-Zionist” crusade. But the reality is very different from what many US officials wish to admit.

Both Israel and the US have always viewed Iraq, with its pivotal strategic position, its highly educated population and enormous natural wealth, as a threat to US-Israeli dominance in the Middle East. Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1982, America’s destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure in the 1991 Gulf War, its use of depleted uranium, and the devastating impact of US-instigated sanctions are all part and parcel of a systematic US-Israeli plan to devastate the Iraqi state and society.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that many torture techniques used by the Americans in Abu Ghraib were adopted from the Israelis. Tens of thousands of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab detainees see striking similarities between the Israeli treatment of Arab prisoners and America’s treatment of Iraqi detainees. Consistent reports from human rights groups and testimonies by Arab detainees detail Israel’s use of hooding, sleep deprivation, violent shaking, forced stripping, cold baths in winter and actual or threatened sexual abuse.17 

Interestingly, many individuals working for US military contractors CACI and Titan were cited in the Taguba report. Those individuals included Steven Stephanowicz and John Israel. The CEO of CACI, J.P. “Jack” London was awarded the Albert Einstein Technology Award by the Jerusalem Fund for Aish Hatorah, which was presented to him by Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in January. On that occasion, CACI proudly announced that as a provider of information technology to help fight the war on “terrorism,” it was helping to transform the Middle East “into a peaceful, stable, region.”18


Swoops by troops posing as Arabs were among the Israeli tactics US forces were studying.


London visited Israel earlier this year with a delegation for a homeland security conference. Also, one of the American interrogators in Abu Ghraib, Joe Ryan, stated: “I went through the Department of Defense (DOD) Strategic Debriefer Course, Israeli Interrogation Course, and the SCAN course.” 19

US-Israeli cooperation is not a new phenomenon; it has long been tied into the strategic and military planning for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before the war, Israeli security sources said that US officers visited a mock-up of an Arab town used for Israeli training, and that US and Israeli troops held joint exercises in the Negev Desert. United States’ officers also reportedly reviewed Israeli tactics used in the brutal assault on the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin over a year ago, in which 23 Israeli soldiers and allegedly hundreds of Palestinians were killed.

Earlier reports also suggested that Israeli squads were present in Western Iraq before the invasion, to neutralize any potential Iraqi missile threat to Israel. In addition, Israeli commandos and intelligence units were working closely with their American counterparts at the Special Forces training base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.20 

It’s no secret that US forces in Iraq were receiving lessons in occupation and counterinsurgency from the Israeli military. Seymour Hersh confirmed earlier in The New Yorker that the Pentagon sought “active and secret help in the war against the Iraqi insurgency from Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East… Israeli commandos are expected to serve as ad-hoc advisers—again, in secret—when full-field operations begin.”21

The Israelis also supplied the US army with aerial surveillance equipment, decoy drones and D-9 armored bulldozers. Israeli security sources say mass assaults by covert squads of soldiers and swoops by troops posing as Arabs were among the tactics US forces were studying for use in Iraq. United States’ aircraft and artillery have blasted buildings suspected of being used by insurgents, and there have been instances of family members of suspected insurgents being taken hostage in order to pressure the insurgents into surrendering themselves.22

Falluja – football field serves as a grave for victims of the US assault
For many months, whole villages in Iraq have been surrounded by razor wire, their residents forced to pass through checkpoints manned by US soldiers.23 US military officials have also reviewed the common Israeli tactic of conducting house-to-house searches for armed fighters by knocking down interior walls with portable battering rams.24 A Red Cross report describing the conduct of US troops in Iraq suggests striking similarities with Israeli behavior in the West Bank and Gaza:  

Arresting authorities entered houses after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property. Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people… Treatment often included pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles.25


The systematic abuse of the Iraqi civilian population will definitely have major repercussions on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Already the anti-US insurgency being led by both Sunni and Shiite militias is gaining widespread legitimacy among the Iraqi masses, many of whom have experienced first hand the gruesome reality of US occupation and the moral bankruptcy of US officials and leaders.

It would be wrong to assume that US practices at Abu Ghraib or at any other detention facilities are only intended to further intelligence-gathering efforts. The widespread use of force or humiliation techniques against captives is usually counterproductive – most captives do not know much and usually end up telling interrogators what they want to hear to end the torture. Significantly, neither the United States nor Israel has been made safer by investing in torture. Rather, widespread abuses against detainees have fueled resentment among the people of occupied Palestine and Iraq

The abuses at Abu Ghraib will not be looked at as isolated incidents committed by a minority, but rather as part of a systematic, consistent and, indeed, global onslaught lead by the US aimed at the humiliation and demoralization of Muslims since September 11. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib will be perceived as a microcosm of the larger pattern of Muslim dignity being trampled by the West, manifested in the occupation of Muslim lands, the appropriation of their resources, and the appointment of “friendly tyrants” to govern Muslim affairs. In that sense, Abu Ghraib is not a beginning and will certainly not be the end.

Kareem M. Kamel is an Egyptian freelance writer based in Cairo, Egypt. He has an MA in International Relations and is specialized in security studies, decision- making, nuclear politics, Middle East politics and the politics of Islam. He is currently assistant to the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo.

[1] Lisa Hajjar, “Torture and the Future,”  Middle East Report Online May 2004

[2] Khalid Amayreh, “Israeli Lessons for the US in Iraq,”  Al-Jazeera (English) May 6th, 2004 

[3] Fareed Zakaria, “The ‘Republic of Fear’ is Dead,”  MSNBC/Newsweek December 22nd, 2003

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Iraq: US Prisoner Abuse Sparks Concerns Over War Crimes,” Human Rights Watch April 30th, 2004 

[6] Alexander G. Higgins, “Report: 70%-90% Held in Error in Iraq,”  Arizona Daily Star May 11th, 2004 

[7] Melinda Liu, “Culture of Impunity?” MSNBC/Newsweek May 5th, 2004 

[8] Seymour M. Hersh, “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” The New Yorker May 1st , 2004

[9] John Barry, et al. “Abu Ghraib and Beyond,”  Newsweek May 17th, 2004

[10] Seymour M. Hersh, “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” The New Yorker May 1st , 2004

[11] Ibid.

[12] Anthony Lewis, “A President Beyond the Law Sets a Bad Example,”  International Herald Tribune  May 8th, 2004

[13] George Monbiot, “One Rule For Them,” Common Dreams March 25th, 2003

[14] Richard Phillips, “Details of Torture of Iraqi Prisoners,” April 30th, 2004

[15] Eyal Press, “In Torture We Trust?”  Nation March 31st, 2003

[16] Melinda Liu, “War of Perceptions,”  MSNBC/Newsweek April 29th, 2004

[17] Khalid Amayreh, “Israeli Lessons for the US in Iraq,”  Al-Jazeera (English)  May 6th, 2004

[18] Michael Saba, “Is Torture the American Way?”  May 9th, 2004

[19] Ibid.

[20] Seymour M. Hersh, “Moving Targets,”  The New Yorker  December 8th, 2003

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Israel Quietly Helps US in Iraq, Aides Say,” December 12th, 2003.

[23] Tony Karon, “Learning the Art of Occupation from Israel,” December 9th, 2003

[24] Esther Schrader, et al, “US Seeks Advice from Israel on Iraq,” LA Times November 22nd, 2003

[25] Alexander G. Higgins, “Report: 70%-90% Held in Error in Iraq,”  Arizona Daily Star May 11th, 2004.

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