Abu Greib: abuse or torture?

Let us first decide what the Abu Greib scandal is all about. US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld thinks the word "torture" is not right. "I'm not a lawyer," he said. "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture."

The heaps of new photographs depicting the atrocities committed by US and British troops against the inmates of Abu Greib and other Iraqi prisons might change the secretary's impression. They show US soldiers in heavy boots jumping on naked male Iraqis arranged in a pile. They show electric wires connected to the fingers of an Iraqi with a sack on his head. They show military working dogs intimidating the detainees.

US Major General Antonio M. Taguba provided the evidence of the inmates, which he finds "creditable based on the clarity of their statements and supporting evidence provided by other witnesses." In particular, he mentions soldiers breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees.

Enough, one might think. One does not need to be the Pentagon chief to distinguish between abuse and genuine, full-scale torture that even Saddam Hussein did not resort to.

Senior US and British officials are apologising with the same zeal with which they had recently created commissions to investigate the "strange" lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In the past few days, the Islamic world has heard apologies from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, US President George Bush, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But these admissions of guilt were strictly limited. The top officials apologised for the improper behaviour of a bunch of soldiers who do not - repeat, not - represent the noble coalition armies or the Western type of democracy, which they are bringing in their Hummers to Iraq, just as they had brought it to Afghanistan. They all mean that the seven "black sheep" - the US soldiers who may face tribunal because of Abu Greib abuses - cannot discredit the flock.

But they know there is little new in this scandal. For the past 18 months, the largest world publications and international human rights organisations have been sounding the alarm over the humiliating treatment of detainees and torture in the prisons of Afghanistan and Iraq and at the US Guantanamo base in Cuba.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who appeared the other day on Larry King's live show on CNN, made an interesting discovery. He peered into US history and found the forerunner of Sgt. Jeremy Sivits, a warden in Abu Greib who will be put on trial in Iraq on May 19. The forerunner of today's "liberator" of Iraq was Lieutenant William Calley, the "liberator" of Vietnam, who in 1968 ordered his platoon to incinerate the Vietnamese village of My Lai.

Interestingly, one of the loudest voices raised to partially justify Calley was that of Democratic presidential frontrunner John Kerry. He admitted that the lieutenant could be charged with manslaughter but said this verdict did not point to the genuine criminal. Those of us who served in Vietnam know that the true culprit is the United States of America, said John Kerry.

It appears that Kerry's idea is applicable to the Iraqi scandal. The shame and pain of Abu Greib is not a sad aberration, as the Washington officials claim, but a norm of US relations with the Third World.

The chain of moral responsibility is apparent. A female US sergeant puts a naked Iraqi on a rope leash and orders him to crawl around on his fours because she was ordered to do so by the military intelligence, which is applying harsher interrogation methods in compliance with the orders from their seniors, up to and including Secretary Rumsfeld. Hovering behind these horrible doings is the shadow of the Washington administration, which made the decision to launch the unfair war under the guise of bringing the US type of democracy to the Gulf.

The guise has fallen now, revealing electric wires connected to naked bodies, working dogs biting detainees, and dog collars clasped around human necks.

Washington and London do not seem to understand what serious damage the torture in Abu Greib and other prisons have done to their reputation of "international guardians and defenders of human rights." The very ability of these countries to pursue a foreign policy that could be trusted by the international community and, more importantly, to fight against international terrorism has been put in question.

Today, the US president cannot decide what he should do - support his defence secretary or fire him. But Rumsfeld's resignation from the ranks of advocates of the arrogant and missionary US doctrine, which is humiliating to the weak countries and was devised to keep up the election chances of the Big Chief, is a minor event when seen against the backdrop of other, more serious and lasting consequences of the scandal. Some members of the US administration admit that a new generation will grow up before the USA and the Arab world will leave behind them the May 2004 scandal in the Abu Greib prison. But this might appear to be overly optimistic.

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