By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/21/2004 6:05:45 PM ET 2004-05-21T22:05:45

In the wake of weeks of negative news about abuse of prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers, the Bush administration is seeking to send a strong message about the previous way of life under Saddam Hussein, when many Iraqi men were also victims of torture at Abu Ghraib — Saddam's torture.

"We didn’t believe they were going to cut our hands off until we realized that our hands were not there anymore," says survivor Nizar Joudi.

Early one morning after the fall of Baghdad last year, several of these men returned to Abu Ghraib, where, as seen in a video from Saddam's secret police, they had been mutilated a decade earlier. For the past six weeks, they have been in Houston, getting rehabilitated — flown in with the help of private aid groups and the U.S. government, which is helping them come to Washington next week.

All of this was arranged long before the American prison scandal became front-page news. But now the Bush administration, under fire for its own human rights abuses, is trying to use Saddam's victims to mount a public relations counteroffensive.

This week, Al Hurra, the U.S. government-backed TV broadcasts to Iraq, also started showing a video of Iraqi torture and offering it to American networks.

"Many, many were murdered, but many others were mutilated, scarred for life as part of Saddam’s deliberate strategy of terrorizing the population,” says Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch.

We were scarred on our foreheads, between our eyebrows,” says survivor Alla’a Hassan.

According to Human Rights Watch and other groups, 290,000 Iraqis were killed or mutilated over the past two decades. At Abu Ghraib, prisoners were forced to remain naked for as long as four years. But human rights experts say the U.S. should not take comfort in Saddam's hideous example.

"Obviously, Saddam Hussein’s atrocities made even the outrages of Abu Ghraib today pale by comparison, but that is not the measure Americans should use to assess the conduct of their own troops,” says Roth.

But in the uproar over the images of American abuse, U.S. officials are aggressively reminding the world of the enormity of Saddam's abuses.

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