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Abu Ghraib

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Iraq: Missing the Point

26 May 2006

Iraq: Missing the Point

 By Gwynne Dyer

They still don’t get it.

US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, giving their umpteenth joint press conference at the White House on Thursday, showed the amateurs how to deal with the media. Wry, humble, funny, rueful, always upbeat — they were a polished double act that could have put a positive spin on the Black Death. Iraq has allegedly “turned the corner” again: after five months of bitter deadlock. A new government has taken office in Baghdad that only lacks a defence minister and an interior minister, and Bush and Blair were there to sell it as a success.

The press always like to have its tummy tickled, so all the questions were basically friendly. The answers to the last question, however, were very revealing. A journalist recalled that both men have admitted to missteps and mistakes in Iraq, and asked them which ones they regretted most.

President Bush did public penance for his macho remarks about the Iraq resistance movement — “bring em on” — back in the hyper-confident “Mission Accomplished” days of 2003. It was charming, vintage Bush: “I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner, you know.” And he avowed that “the biggest mistake that’s happened so far, at least from [in terms of] our country’s involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib.”

He is a bit behind the times. The massacre at Haditha last November will leave Abu Ghraib in the shade when the full story comes out. As Brigadier-General David M. Brahms, a former top lawyer for the US Marine Corps, told the “Washington Post” last week: “When these investigations come out there’s going to be a firestorm. It’s worse than Abu Ghraib. Nobody was killed at Abu Ghraib.”

Tony Blair aimed for a more reflective tone: “I think that probably…we could have done de-Baathification in a more differentiated manner than we did…But the biggest reason why Iraq has been difficult is the determination by our opponents to defeat us.”

Now there’s a novel concept: our opponents are determined to defeat us. No wonder that Blair added: “Maybe in retrospect, when we look back, it should have been very obvious to us.” But the resentful whine in Blair’s voice was entirely genuine: how was he to know they would fight back? Maybe he could have done de-Baathification a bit better, but apart from that it’s not his fault.

Tony Blair is a fairly bright man, and George W. Bush is not as dim as he seems, so how can they be so obtuse about Iraq? De-Baathification, re-Baathification, retro-Baathification — nothing can change the basic fact that the Baath party that had ruled Iraq since the 1960s was deeply nationalist and profoundly hostile to the United States (because it is Israel’s closest ally) and to Britain (the former imperial ruler of Iraq).

Fire all the Baathists, and they will go underground and join the resistance. Leave them in their jobs, and they will be a fifth column of spies and saboteurs for the resistance. Likewise for the empty debate about whether US proconsul Paul Bremer made a fatal mistake by disbanding the entire Iraqi army in the spring of 2003. Disband the army, and several hundred thousand trained men will take their skills and their weapons and join the resistance. Leave the existing army in place, and its officers will sell the foreign occupation troops out to the resistance at every opportunity while awaiting the right moment for a national uprising against the foreigners.

The original decision to invade Iraq was the fatal mistake; the rest is just consequences. Iraq’s government was crueller and less loved than most regimes in the Arab world, but the United States and Britain would be facing the same kind of resistance movement today if they had invaded Morocco, Egypt or Yemen in 2003. There is no country of over two million people in the Arab world where an invading American army would not soon be confronted by the kind of resistance it is facing in Iraq.

History matters, and for Arabs all the history is bad. Britain lured the Arabs into revolt against their Turkish overlords in the First World War with a promise of independence, then carved them up into the familiar Middle Eastern states of the present and bound them all in colonial servitude. It also promised Jews a national homeland in Palestine, the state of Israel — which America has unstintingly supported, regardless of Israel’s policies towards its Arab neighbours, for over forty years. Why would any Arab country welcome an invasion by the United States and Britain?

This is a concept — that we are unloved in the Arab world because of our past behaviour — that is very hard to get across to the public in Yorkshire and Texas. But then, it’s a notion that is also very hard to get across to the governments in Washington and London. They seem to feel that good intentions (as defined by themselves) should be enough to bridge the gap.

If some other country had invaded Iraq with the best of intentions– Russia, say, or Japan — it might have got away with it. But the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was doomed from the first, and Bush and Blair had dozens of experts on call who could have told them why. Either they didn’t listen, or they chose not to ask.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“He is…Ghraib”; and “This is…gap”)


8 May 2004


By Gwynne Dyer

The defining image of the Vietnam war was the naked little girl running down the road crying, her clothes burned off by napalm. The defining image of the Iraq war will probably be Private Lynndie England in a corridor in Abu Ghraib prison, holding a leash attached to a naked Iraqi man lying on the floor. It is the picture that best conveys the contempt that ordinary American soldiers (and the government that sent them) feel for Arabs.

Maybe I’m wrong. US Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld told the Senate armed services committee last week that “the worst is yet to come. There are a lot more pictures and many investigations underway….I looked at them last night, and they’re hard to believe….It’s not a pretty picture.” But the symbolism of this one will be hard to beat.

Iraqis “must understand that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know,” said President Bush, and he was right. Americans do not generally do this to other Americans. But it did happen in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and things very like it have probably happened in American prisons in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo, too. Private England and her friends may have been enjoying it too much, but the systematic humiliation of prisoners is probably policy.

‘R2I’ is short for ‘resistance to interrogation.’ It’s a course that most military people whose jobs put them at risk of being captured — pilots, special forces, etc. — have to take. They are exposed to the full battery of techniques that enemy interrogators might use against them (keeping them naked, sexual humiliation, anything that will ‘prolong the shock of capture’ and weaken their will), but only in small and manageable doses. It’s a kind of immunisation against ‘torture lite’ interrogation techniques.

But US and British interrogators also know these techniques, and so do the thousands of ex-special forces people who now work in Iraq. (One result of Rumsfeld’s obsession with keeping US troop numbers down in Iraq, in order to prove that the US can invade countries like Iraq without incurring a big political cost at home, is the 20,000 ‘contractors’ doing paramilitary jobs in the country.)

Do they employ these techniques in Iraq and elsewhere? Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in Switzerland: “We are dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system.” The ICRC has been warning the US of mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq for over a year.

Amnesty International concurs. “Our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident….(We have ) received frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by coalition forces during the past year. Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest or detention…Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities.”

General Janis Karpinski, who commanded Abu Ghraib prison when those pictures were taken, is being set up to take the fall for all this. She was a reservist, reluctant to challenge regulars, so she didn’t protest when military intelligence officers at Abu Ghraib discouraged her from visiting the cell block where they interrogated prisoners, or went to great lengths to keep the Red Cross from visiting their wing of the prison.

When General Geoffrey Miller, then the commandant at Guantanamo, flew into Iraq last September to offer “suggestions on how to make interrogations more efficient and effective,” she didn’t ask exactly what he meant — even when he talked of making the prison an “enabler for interrogation” and said that the guards should “set the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.” Now she has been relieved of her command — and replaced by the very same General Miller. This is a system, not an individual’s aberrant behaviour.

It was all for naught, though, because most of the people detained at Abu Ghraib, at Bagram in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo and in the rest of the gulag are just innocent bystanders. “A unit goes out on a raid and…the target is not available; they just grab anybody because that was their job,” Torin Nelson, a former military intelligence officer at Guantanamo who worked as a contractor at Abu Ghraib, told the ‘Guardian.’ “They’re not cultural experts….I’ve read reports from capturing units where the capturing unit wrote, ‘the target was not at home. The neighbour came out to see what was going on and we grabbed him.”‘ And then somebody else tortured him.

The American troops in Iraq are not cultural, political or historical experts. They are frightened and far from home, and a hundred Hollywood movies have taught them that Arabs are dirty, sly, cruel enemies of all that is good. The deliberately misleading propaganda of their own government has persuaded most of them that they are in Iraq as part of a ‘war on terror.’ (Even at home, according to a University of Maryland study, 57 percent of Americans “believe that before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaida,” and 65 percent believe that “experts” found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.) So many US soldiers see Iraqis as inferior and hostile, and all the rest follows.

The pictures that have shocked the Arab and the wider Muslim world are not just about isolated instances of abuse. They are evidence of something bigger and uglier: a wilful ignorance and patronising contempt that disfigures the entire US intervention in the Middle East. We will all be paying for this for many years.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“Amnesty…authorities”; and “it was…him”)