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The dehumanizing nature of occupation
By Ehsan Ahrari

If the United States invaded Iraq to liberate its people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, recent reports of "systematic" inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners only underscore that the very nature of occupation of one country by another is such that it invariably leads to acts that dehumanize the occupied people in the name of security. The outcome: intense and incessant hostility, resentment, and anger of the occupied toward the occupiers.

New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh has written a gruesome account of gross and systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Gharib prison. The ultimate irony is that, during the rule of Saddam, Abu Gharib became a symbol of brutality. Once it could not find weapons of mass destruction to justify its invasion of Iraq, the administration of US President George W Bush claimed that the liberation of Iraqis from the most inhumane rule of a dictator was a good enough reason for taking military action against that country. Now reports of the US military's abuse of Iraqi prisoners in that notorious prison threaten to deprive the United States of even that wobbly claim.

The seeds of prisoner abuse were sown in the very act of invasion and occupation of a country, especially when it was done without the moral authority of the international community. By going into Iraq without the sanction of the United Nations - the sole symbol of international legitimacy - the occupation forces became the target of Iraqi anger, particularly by not only remaining there indefinitely, but also by promising to transform Iraq into the image of their own society. Any expectation of overwhelming cooperation from the Iraqi populace was unrealistic. The manifestation of Iraqi anger through acts of resistance and insurgency was bound to create an equally brutal response from the occupying forces.

No occupying force can effectively respond to acts of insurgency, subversion and resistance without good intelligence. Therein lies the rub. Can the Anglo-American forces get credible information regarding potential hostile acts - known in the jargon of intelligence as "actionable intelligence" - without the use of force, including psychological means of torture and acts of humiliation regarded highly offensive in the Arab and Islamic culture? The answer, at least in the case of Abu Gharib prison, is that someone at the top made the decision to use whatever means desirable to get credible and actionable intelligence, or to look away and play innocent. Now the focus of inquiry ought to be whether such a decision, indeed, was made at the top. If so, how far up the chain of command does the notion of culpability go?

Bush has appropriately and promptly expressed his feeling of disgust at the reports of abuse. However, General Richard Meyer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quick to go on the defensive during an interview conducted on Fox Television Network on Sunday. He said: "There is no evidence of systematic abuse" in the US detention operations in the region. However, his claim was in direct contradiction with the one reported in Hersh's essay. Major-General Antonio M Taguba's report, which he wrote for the Pentagon, but was not meant for public release, cites numerous instances of "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" at Abu Gharib. The Taguba report notes: "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 broomstick; and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee."

The issue of culpability may be best pursued by closely examining the rationale - such as it was - for any abuse or dehumanizing treatment of Iraqi prisoners. At least for now, there are reasons to believe that the perpetrators of such acts were not merely some young soldiers from rural West Virginia or Oregon, acting on their own and without proper guidance, training, or supervision. Hersh reports: "In letters and e-mails to family members, Frederick repeatedly noted that the military-intelligence teams, which included CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] officers and linguists and interrogation specialists from private defense contractors, were the dominant force inside Abu Gharib. In a letter written in January, he said: 'I questioned some of the things that I saw ... such things as leaving inmates in their cell with no clothes or in female underpants, handcuffing them to the door of their cell - and the answer I got was, "This is how military intelligence [MI] wants it done" ... MI has also instructed us to place a prisoner in an isolation cell with little or no clothes, no toilet or running water, no ventilation or window, for as much as three days.' The military-intelligence officers have 'encouraged and told us, great job, they were now getting positive results and information,' Frederick wrote. The CIA has been present when the military working dogs were used to intimidate prisoners at MI's request. At one point, Frederick told his family, he pulled aside his superior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jerry Phillabaum, the commander of the 320th MP Battalion, and asked about the mistreatment of prisoners. His reply was. 'Don't worry about it.'"

If the preceding information is correct, then these events may not be swept under the rug merely by taking disciplinary action against a few soldiers, junior officers and one flag officer, Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of military prisons in Iraq. One has to go to the top - all the way to Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, senior commander of US forces in Iraq. After all, he was the one who initially ordered Major-General Donald Ryder, provost marshal of the US Army, to review the Iraqi prison system. The Ryder report concluded that the "situation had not yet reached a crisis point". Why did General Sanchez decide against a further probe when he knew how damaging such incidents could be for the overall US prestige in the world?

We know now that the conclusion of the Ryder report was rejected by General Taguba when he stated in his report: "Unfortunately, many of the systemic problems that surfaced during [Ryder's] assessment are the very same issues that are the subject of this investigation. In fact, many of the abuses suffered by detainees occurred during, or near to, the time of that assessment." He went on to add, according to Hersh: "Contrary to the findings of M G Ryder's report, I find that personnel assigned to the 372nd MP Company, 800th MP Brigade, were directed to change facility procedures to 'set the conditions' for MI interrogations." Army intelligence officers, CIA agents and private contractors "actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses".

The Arab world has been saturated with the reports and pictures of the dehumanization of Iraqi prisoners. Admittedly, there is no comparison between the brutality of the Saddam regime and the reports of abuse of prisoners in occupied Iraq. However, as one dispatch in the latest issue of Newsweek aptly notes: "No one would liken US abuses to Saddam's techniques, which included the most sadistic forms of torture and murder. But then, being more humane than Saddam isn't much to brag about."

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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