Another Body Blow

In a massive blow to the stabilization effort, the head of the Iraqi Governing Council was assassinated in a bombing near a U.S. checkpoint in Baghdad today. "Abdel-Zahraa Othman, also known as Izzadine Saleem, was the second and highest-ranking member of the U.S.-appointed council to be assassinated. He was among four Iraqis killed in the blast." This is the latest development in a war hobbled by setbacks, a lack of strategy and rampant mismanagement. The death signifies that one year after the end of "major combat operations," the country is still beset by violence and instability.

New reports in The New Yorker and Newsweek allege the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison wasn't triggered by a handful of errant reservists; it was the direct result of decisions made all the way at the top, by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Newsweek reports, President "Bush, along with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft, signed off on a secret system of detention and interrogation that opened the door" to the abuse. "It was an approach that they adopted to sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war." Specifically, Seymour Hersh writes, Rumsfeld, as part of his "long-standing desire to wrest control of America's clandestine and paramilitary operations from the CIA," approved a plan in Iraq which encouraged the "physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence."

The Pentagon has been quick to disavow the charges made by The New Yorker and Newsweek as part of a larger attempt to limit blame to low-level soldiers. But the denials are actually a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Hill Columnist Joshua Marshall points out, if you read the official denial statement by Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita, "This is not a denial of anything. It's a classic non-denial denial -- a bunch of aggressive phrases strung together to sound like a denial without actually denying anything."

The latest case in point: the NYT reports, "About 100 high-ranking Iraqi prisoners held for months at a time in spartan conditions on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport are being detained under a special chain of command, under conditions not subject to approval by the top American commander in Iraq." In this situation, so-called "high value detainees" have been held in strict solitary confinement "in small concrete cells without sunlight, according to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross." The conditions have been described by the ICRC as "a violation of the Geneva Conventions, the international treaty that the Bush administration has said it regards as 'fully applicable' to all prisoners held by the United States in Iraq." According to the rules, American commander Ricardo S. Sanchez must give his approval to all prisoners held in solitary for more than 30 days. However, "on Sunday, a senior military officer said that statement did not apply to the prisoners being held at the airport, because 'we were not the authority' for the high-value detainees." The military was unable to say who was in charge, and the U.S. has taken no steps to call a halt to the procedure.

Coalition forces are locked in battle with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's militia in southern Iraq. The Washington Post reports, the fierce fighting is "presenting U.S. officials with a more serious political challenge than the insurgency's still potent strongholds farther north." The ongoing battle "reflects the U.S. strategy of squeezing Sadr militarily while allowing a group of local Shiite leaders to broker a deal, much as Sunni Muslim leaders did this month in the western city of Fallujah." The U.S., however, may want to use a different model of success; the LAT reports this morning that, in fact, the deal that ostensibly brought stability to Fallujah actually handed power over to the guerrillas. Instead of a coalition victory, "Fallujah is for all intents and purposes a rebel town" which serves as "an inspirational ground zero for anti-Western militants in the Middle East, the place that beat back the Marines."

For the very first time, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday evidence that Iraq had mobile biological laboratories, a major claim in his presentation to the United Nations, was faulty. Powell said, "It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases, deliberately misleading...and for that, I am disappointed and I regret it." The NYT reports, "Taken with past admissions of error by the administration or its intelligence agencies, Mr. Powell's statement on Sunday leaves little room for the administration to argue that Mr. Hussein's stockpiles of unconventional weapons posed any real and imminent threat." (A State Department press aide tried to block the Powell from answering the question; Powell chastised her sharply and continued.) Powell's admission that his assertions were inaccurate provides "a sharp contrast to comments four months ago by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the administration still believed that the trailers were part of a program of unconventional weapons, and added that he 'would deem that conclusive evidence' that Mr. Hussein in fact had such programs."

Two senators this weekend charged that the White House had made serious errors in the war in Iraq, resulting in a nation grappling with grave security issues. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on Meet the Press, "One [mistake] was the lack of sufficient troops there which allowed the looting to take place, which established kind of a lawless environment," as well as the fact that the U.S. didn't "make sufficient plans to turn over the government as quickly as possible." Sen. Biden concurred, saying, "As [McCain] pointed out, too few troops, looting, 850,000 tons of weapons left open, not able to guard them and then we went with too little legitimacy." An additional problem, said Biden, was the White House's inability to admit and fix existing problems: "They seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the mistakes made and trying to correct them."

Show Us the Videotape

There are new allegations that the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq also occurred at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Tarek Dergoul, a British prisoner freed from Guantanamo Bay last month, said that Camp Delta's punishment squad, called the Extreme Reaction Force (ERF), "pepper-sprayed me in the face, and I started vomiting. They pinned me down and attacked me, poking their fingers in my eyes, and forced my head into the toilet pan and flushed." Dergoul's description of his treatment was similar to three other British detainees -- Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iabal and Ruhal Ahmed -- released in March. The three alleged that, at Guantanamo, to be "ERFed" meant "being slammed against the floor wielding a riot shield, pinned to the ground and beaten up by five armed men." But there is no reason for speculation and allegation to continue. Dergoul also revealed that "every time the ERFs were deployed, a sixth team member recorded on digital video everything that happened." The Guantanamo spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Leon Sumpter, confirmed that "all ERF actions were filmed" and "are kept in an archive there." Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he "would demand that Rumsfeld must produce the videos this week."

According to government officials, the rules for prisoner treatment at Guantanamo Bay "forbid the kind of torture coming to light in Iraq." Officials do acknowledge that techniques at Guantanamo are designed to cause "disorientation, fatigue and stress" and put pressure on the "pride and ego" of the detainees. But Army Col. David McWilliams, spokesperson for the military command that runs Guantanamo, said the facility permits "no physical contact at all...our procedures prohibit us from disrobing for any reason at all." The only way to confirm McWilliams' claim: Release the videotape.

There have already been confirmed cases of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay. Two guards "received administrative punishments for hitting a detainee with a radio and spraying a detainee with a hose." It has been confirmed that "eight soldiers had been punished by being demoted or given less serious administrative punishment for offenses ranging from humiliating detainees to physical assault." But according to Navy Inspector General Thomas Church, who briefly visited Guantanamo to review the treatment of detainees," there's more than eight." Army spokesman McWilliams claims the cases were not part of an interrogation strategy but "the misapplication of a guard to a detainee's action." American Progress has called for the formation of an independent commission to investigate the charges of abuse at Guantanamo and other locations where the United States holds detainees.

Last week the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) "delivered the latest in a series of critical reports on treatment of prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay." According to a State Department official who read the report, it is "'critical' of living conditions and interrogation techniques used on detainees at the base." Last October the ICRC said that conditions at the prison resulted in the "deterioration in the psychological health of a large number" of prisoners -- a contributing factor to the 32 suicide attempts that have occurred at the based. In January, their concerns about Guantanamo were so acute that ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger met privately with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. According to Wolfowitz, "there are some serious issues between us and the Red Cross about Guantanamo...[but] they have nothing to do with the kinds of abuses that we've been hearing about in Iraq." The only way to confirm Wolfowitz's claim: Release the videotape.

According to Newsweek, "The appeal of Gitmo from the start was, in the view of administration lawyers, the base existed in a legal twilight zone -- or ' the legal equivalent of outer space.'" A memo written by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales said "the war against terrorism is a new kind of war" and "this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." The administration has been adamant that prisoners at Guantanamo are not protected by the Geneva Conventions.

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