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Horror, but little surprise among Arabs

In its first punishments in the case involving the abuse of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, the US military has announced the reprimand of seven people. The seven officers and non-commissioned personnel were not demoted or discharged, nor did they participate in the abuse, but officials said they were responsible for setting standards.

At the same time, President George W Bush has urged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to ensure that those involved are punished, and a White House spokesman said Bush "wanted to make sure appropriate action is being taken against those responsible".

Within Iraq, investigations will examine activities at 16 detention centers holding about 11,000 prisoners, including 127 foreigners, according to the military. About 4,500 of those prisoners are being held at Abu Ghraib.

Whether this will be enough to calm the growing outrage at the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is another matter, especially in the Arab world.

Images of the abuse - first shown on US television last week and broadcast throughout the world in the days that followed - show naked Iraqi detainees being hooded, beaten and subjected to humiliation. Some photographs show the prisoners being put in sexually suggestive poses while US soldiers stand nearby and smile for the camera.

Baghdad-based journalist Hiwa Osman says that the abuses made the headlines in the Iraqi media. "The [newspapers] are divided, basically. Some are just doing straight, pure reporting; others are appalled by what's happening. Mostly, in general, there is shock and disbelief about what's happened," Osman said.

Osman says speculation has long existed about US abuse of Iraqi prisoners. But many Iraqis discount such allegations as part of the perpetual wave of rumors about American troops. "This was also taken as part of the other big campaign of rumors and propaganda against the Americans. That's why [nobody] took them seriously at the time. But these photos kind of showed a completely new thing to the Iraqis that they haven't been expecting, to be honest. They were hearing rumors, but not many people believed them, because they knew there was a concerted campaign of rumors and propaganda against the Americans in Iraq," Osman said.

That has all changed. Iraq's influential Association of Muslim Clerics on Monday called for an international investigation to be conducted into the allegations. Throughout the Arab region, the press has been united in condemning the abuse.

The Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram writes in a commentary that "condemnation by the United States and Great Britain is not enough". It calls for the "rapid formation of an international tribunal [to] judge the soldiers who perpetrated these crimes".

An editorial in another Egyptian newspaper, al-Dustour, describes the abuse as an "earthquake that shook the conscience of the world" and said the action was the work of the "orphans of the Ku Klux Klan".

Syria's official daily ath-Thawra says the abuse is "proof that the acts of torture" by US troops are widespread.

A spokesman for the Qatar-based alJazeera television channel, Jihad Ballout, told RFE/RL that the prevailing reaction in the Arab world is one of shock and anger. At the same time, he says, many Arabs have distrusted the US for so long that the prisoner abuse does not come as a surprise.

"Reviewing the media, most of which have interviewed people inside Iraq and across the Arab world, there is a sense of people saying, 'Well, why we are surprised, why we are shocked? We should have anticipated that'," Ballout said.

Ballout said that, even before the photographs came to light, many Arabs believed that Americans had come to Iraq to "humiliate" Iraqis and Arabs generally. The latest developments, Ballout said, only serve as "vindication" of those opinions.

Ballout said that Arabs are most offended by the fact that US soldiers are shown abusing naked prisoners. He says Islam has strict rules about nudity - to the degree that even married couples are shy about appearing naked in each other's presence.

"Perhaps [most offensive] was the nudity [of the prisoners] and the prisoners being forced to get involved in the practices that are related to sexual behavior, especially between men themselves. I think that has caused the greatest anxiety, the strongest feelings, amongst Arab public opinion in general," Ballout said.

The scandal comes at a time when US policy is increasingly shaky in Iraq and the Middle East. American troops suffered unprecedented numbers of casualties in April in fighting with Iraqi insurgents. And Bush has come under heated criticism for his support for Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for a unilateral solution to the situation in the occupied territories.

This latest blow may make matters even worse. Ballout echoes the sentiment of US Senator Joe Biden, saying the abuse scandal marks a low point in US policy in the region. "This is the biggest reversal of the American public policy in the Middle East for the past 10 years."

Politicians from all over the Arab and Muslim world have condemned the US abuse of prisoners. Amr Musa, the secretary general of the Arab League, expressed "shock and disgust" at the "shameful images." An Arab League statement decries the abuse as committed by "members of the forces which pretend to defend the liberties and dignity of man".

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Tuesday urged the United States and Britain to take swift and stern measures to prevent any of their soldiers from abusing Iraqi prisoners. Malaysia chairs the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim organization.

A spokesman from Iran's Foreign Ministry said the US had replaced Saddam Hussein as the enemy of the Iraqi people. Afghanistan warned that the abuse could erode Afghan support for US efforts to stabilize their country.

And Paul Hunt, a special rapporteur in the United Nations human rights commission, said Monday: "These are extremely serious allegations." In a letter to the US-administered Coalition Provisional Authority that oversees occupied Iraq, Hunt says: "If they are true, steps must be taken to ensure these grave breaches of international law do not recur."

(Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inter Press Service)

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