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As insurgency grew, so did prison abuse

The worsening war outside the walls of the U.S. prison system in Iraq had a direct bearing on the abuses that occurred inside the facilities, according to Iraqi and American sources. Through the summer and fall of 2003, when detainees at Abu Ghraib prison suffered mistreatment now notorious throughout the world, the security situation in Iraq and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners ran parallel courses, both downward.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, center left, accompanied by U.S. Brig Gen. Janice Karpinski, left, tours Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in this July file photo. Chris Helgren / Pool via AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Second of three articles

BAGHDAD, May 9 -- In the fall of 2003, U.S. officials watched anxiously as a potent guerrilla resistance rose across broad swaths of northern and central Iraq. Insurgents assassinated diplomats, detonated car bombs and mounted daily hit-and-run strikes on U.S. soldiers. Fearful of reprisals, Iraqis shrank from collaborating with an occupation authority that appeared powerless to reverse the tide of violence and lawlessness.

Less than two weeks after 1,000 pounds of explosives demolished U.N. headquarters here on Aug. 19, driving the organization from Iraq, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller arrived in Baghdad from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was warden of the U.S. detention facility for suspected terrorists. Miller's mission in Iraq signaled new zeal to organize an intelligence network that could hit back at the insurgents, but through unorthodox means.

"He came up there and told me he was going to 'Gitmoize' the detention operation," turning it into a hub of interrogation, said Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, then commander of the military prison system in Iraq. "But the difference is, in Guantanamo Bay there isn't a war going on outside the wall."

The worsening war outside the walls of the U.S. prison system in Iraq had a direct bearing on the abuses that occurred inside the facilities, according to Iraqi and American sources. Through the summer and fall of 2003, when detainees at Abu Ghraib prison suffered mistreatment now notorious throughout the world, the security situation in Iraq and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners ran parallel courses, both downward.

U.S. officials were under mounting pressure to collect wartime intelligence but were hobbled by a shortage of troops, the failure to build an effective informant network and a surprisingly skilled insurgency. In response, they turned to the prison system. Today, as outrage spreads over images of abused prisoners, the practices inside the prisons have the potential of strengthening the insurgency that they were designed to defeat.

Interviews with U.S. officials, former prisoners and Iraqis who have supported the occupation, along with findings outlined in the Army's internal investigation of prison abuses, make clear that there was a connection between changes in conditions inside the prisons and the struggle to control an increasingly hostile country.

Last fall, U.S. military leaders cast about for ways to generate more information on the insurgency after focusing their early intelligence efforts on the hunt for Saddam Hussein, his top lieutenants and the weapons of mass destruction that were the Bush administration's rationale for going to war.

The urgency of the problem prompted U.S. officials to accept a new intelligence service they once opposed because of its similarity to Hussein's. It also led to more widespread detentions of Iraqis. The strategy was reflected in the rising number of Iraqis arrested for questioning across the country in the late fall. At Abu Ghraib alone, the number of prisoners rose from 5,800 in September to 8,000 five months later, when Karpinski received an official admonishment.

The harsh treatment of prisoners was seen by some of the perpetrators as consistent with Miller's recommendation for "setting conditions" for interrogations by military intelligence officers. Although abuses of prisoners have been denounced as aberrations, former detainees describe humiliation, pain and discomfort as commonplace.

The treatment could also be traced to other outside pressures on the American jailers. Pre-interrogation punishment at Abu Ghraib was dispensed by reservists embittered by their prolonged stay in Iraq and plagued by frequent attacks from outside the prison walls, according to the Army investigation conducted by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba.

"Psychological factors, such as the difference in culture, the soldiers' quality of life, the real presence of mortal danger over an extended time period, and the failure of commanders to recognize these pressures contributed to the perversive atmosphere that existed at Abu Ghraib," Taguba wrote.

Purge damages occupation
Some American and Iraqi commentators attribute the growth of the insurgency to the decision in May of last year by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, to dissolve the Iraqi military.

The decision was another step in the dismantling of Hussein's government, once dominated by members of the Baath Party. But it had a practical effect of leaving an estimated 400,000 men with military training without jobs. U.S. commanders worried about the consequences, which Iraqis sympathetic to the U.S. project now say have turned out worse than any of the Americans expected.

Many former Baathist officials fled Iraq for their safety, according to former military officers, taking with them their intelligence training and unrivaled knowledge of Iraq's pre-war political landscape. Many who stayed were too angry or too frightened to help the Americans, these officers said.

One result, the former officers said, was that violence against U.S. troops began to increase almost at once. Twice as many U.S. troops were killed in hostilities in June than in May, when President Bush had declared an end to major combat operations.

"The way to get information was very easy for the Americans, if they had chosen," said Abdul Jalil Mohsen Muhie, a retired Iraqi brigadier general with the Iraqi National Accord, a party that opposed Hussein from exile and has a long-standing relationship with the CIA. "The intelligence and security services were intact, they were experienced and would have been highly useful after purged of pro-Saddam elements."

The continuing strife had an impact on troops deployed in Iraq and looking forward to a prompt return home. In early June, the 800th Military Police Brigade, which would play a central role in the future U.S. intelligence strategy, received disheartening news. Instead of returning to the United States, the soldiers would be staying on in Iraq.

Their job would now be to administer the new prison system and supervise several specific detention centers, including Camp Bucca, Abu Ghraib and the special ward for "high-value detainees" at Camp Cropper on the grounds of Baghdad International Airport. The brigade had been in charge of the Army's Camp Bucca, a prison in the southern city of Umm Qasr that in the war's aftermath held 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners.

The 320th MP Battalion was assigned to Abu Ghraib, a prison on the western outskirts of Baghdad synonymous with Hussein's oppression. The unit was severely understaffed, with 450 soldiers responsible for as many as 7,000 prisoners at a time according to the Taguba report. The jail was built to hold 4,800 prisoners.

"Morale suffered," Taguba wrote, "and over the next few months there did not appear to be any attempt to mitigate this morale problem."

Karpinski, a business consultant from South Carolina who was a member of the reserves, took command of the brigade at the end of June. Although she had participated in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and later helped oversee a women's military training program in the United Arab Emirates, she had no experience running a large prison.

As Karpinski took charge, American troops were in the midst of Operation Sidewinder, the largest offensive since the invasion. The air and ground assault swept through the heart of the resistance in the crescent of Sunni territory north of Baghdad. There and in the capital, U.S. forces seized hundreds of suspected insurgents.

Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights organization, criticized the U.S. military for subjecting Iraqi prisoners to "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" conditions in a July 1 report. At the time, a U.S. official said, "We are more than complying with our obligations under the Geneva Convention."

Then, on July 3, more than 50 militants ambushed an Army patrol near the town of Balad. Another attack rained mortars on a base, wounding 17 soldiers, and two U.S. soldiers were taken hostage. Suddenly, the insurgency seemed capable of taking the initiative.

"At first, there wasn't so much fear and there was a little cooperation" by Iraqis with the Americans, said Saher Dabbagh, a former Iraqi lieutenant colonel who has worked with U.S. officials here and supports the occupation. "But the curve declined very quickly after that."

The Balad attack surprised U.S. military commanders for what it revealed of the size and skill of the insurgency, several said at the time. On the next day, an audiotape believed to be from Hussein was broadcast on Arab television. In his first public comments since the fall of Baghdad, he called on Iraqis to resist the occupation and claimed that guerrilla cells were being formed to do so.

In the following days, U.S. military officials began to worry publicly whether the 150,000 U.S. troops then in Iraq were sufficient to maintain order. U.S. officials reached out to Iraqi political allies for help, turning to the Iraqi National Accord among others for advice on how to build an Iraqi intelligence service and for assistance looking for the soldiers kidnapped in the Balad attack. The two soldiers were later found dead.

"We told them you cannot play the role of the intelligence and security forces in Iraq because you are not Iraqis," Dabbagh said. "They were trying to find Iraqis, but they were going about it the wrong way. None of the ones they found were professionals, and all of the information they received was false."

Esclation causes change
After receiving reports that large military operations in the north had angered the local population, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, decided in early August to use more small-unit raids that rely for success on precise intelligence.

But the next weeks were among the most damaging to the U.S. occupation to date. A car bomb exploded August 7 in front of the Jordanian Embassy, killing 11 people in the first appearance of such tactics. Twelve days later, another car bomb detonated at the U.N. offices, killing more than 20 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. envoy to Iraq.

Within days, U.S. officials disclosed that they were recruiting a new domestic intelligence service from former agents of Hussein's intelligence organization, the Mukhabarat, despite deep misgivings from some of the 25 members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

"The only way you are going to combat terrorism is through intelligence," a senior U.S. official here said at the time. "Without Iraqi input, that's not going to work."

Miller, a former paratrooper with a mild Texas drawl, arrived in Baghdad from Cuba on Aug. 31 at the head of a team "experienced in strategic interrogation." Their aim was "to review current Iraqi theater ability to rapidly exploit interviews for actionable intelligence," according to the Taguba report.

"We're enormously proud of what we have done at Guantanamo to be able to set that kind of environment where we were focused on getting the maximum amount of intelligence," Miller said last week in Baghdad, after he returned to Iraq having been named to supervise the country's military prison system. "We were bringing expertise into the theater. We made a number of recommendations, the vast majority of which were implemented following the visit."

The Taguba report cites one of those recommendations as saying that the detention centers must act as "an enabler for interrogation." Miller recommended giving military intelligence officers a greater role in how prisoners were detained, not only how they were questioned. He also recommended training a guard force that "sets the conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation on internees/detainees."

These new procedures came into force as increasing numbers of Iraqis were being detained and interrogated. According to interviews with former prisoners, many arrests were made in predawn raids on houses. Others were swept up if weapons -- even licensed ones -- or suspicious items were found during roadside vehicle searches.

Ahmad Naje Dulaimi, a waiter at a fast-food restaurant in Baghdad's Adhamiya neighborhood, was arrested in the middle of the night of July 18. He had once worked for the Iraqi Olympic Committee, which was run by Hussein's son, Uday, and used as a cover for political persecution.

Dulaima was a long-distance freestyle swimmer on the Iraqi national team. A neighbor had informed U.S. soldiers of his affiliation, he said, and suggested to U.S. troops that he was a member of Hussein's militia, Saddam's Fedayeen.

"I had an Olympic Committee card in my wallet, but I told them I was a swimmer," said Dulaimi, a lanky 23-year old with floppy hair and acne. "I guess the Americans believed their spy."

Within days, the informant, a well-known religious figure in the neighborhood, was killed for working with U.S. troops, Dulaimi said.

Dualimi's 11-month imprisonment began in the interrogation rooms of the Adhamiya Palace, a former Hussein villa now being used by U.S. troops. He spent the first night in the T-shirt and shorts he was sleeping in at the time of his arrest, but he was also hooded, with his hands and feet bound by plastic cuffs.

For two days, he consumed only a cracker and several sips of water, he said. On the third night, he was interrogated by two U.S. soldiers, a man and a woman, who were assisted by a Kuwaiti interpreter. The male soldier strode into the interrogation room, Dulaimi said, and immediately urinated on his head.

"They asked me about Baathists in the neighborhood, if there were officers, who sold weapons, and who were Fedayeen. I told them I knew nothing," said Dulaimi, who also spent time in Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib before he was freed on Thursday, according to his release papers and prison identification bracelet. "They said, 'We know you are innocent, but we want information from you. You know these people.' "

As the prisons filled up, the frequency of rioting and escapes rose alarmingly, as incidents of U.S. troops using force to keep order, rose alarmingly, particularly at Abu Ghraib and Camp Cropper. Sanchez, the commanding general, dispatched Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder to study the situation.

In a November 5 report, Ryder recommended that military police and military intelligence should operate independently, as Army regulations require. He also said "security detainees," the term for those who allegedly pose a threat to U.S. forces, should be put under the watch of one brigade.

But two weeks later Abu Ghraib's military police units were placed under the military intelligence command. Taguba suggested in the report that Miller favored the move by recommending that "the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the detainees."

In a news conference here Saturday, Miller said, "There was no recommendation ever by this team -- the team that I had here in August and September -- that recommended that the MPs become actively involved in interrogation, in the interrogation booth."

The prison system's new "Interrogation and Counter-Resistance Policy," issued Oct. 12, came in the wake of Miller's recommendations. According to the Taguba report, the "numerous photos and videos portraying detainee abuse by Military Police personnel" were dated soon after the policy was adopted, sometime between October and December.

As the new policies took hold, the Abu Ghraib compound was suffering the effects of the war outside its walls.

"We were being fired on at Abu Ghraib every single night, with mortars, RPGs and small-arms fire," Karpinski said. "

U.S. military commanders changed tactics again in an attempt to corral the widening insurgency. In late November, U.S. forces began using 2,000-pound bombs and precision-guided missiles for the first time since the war ended.

U.S. officers described the effort as an attempt to intimidate the guerrillas, and it marked a shift back to large-scale tactics Sanchez had suspended two months earlier. U.S. generals said the large strikes were made possible by a major improvement in their ability to wage war: better intelligence.

Since then, uprisings in the Shiite south and the area north and west of Baghdad known as the Sunni Triangle have inflamed much of the country. The evidence of abuse inside Abu Ghraib has shaken public opinion in Iraq to the point where it may be more difficult than ever to secure cooperation against the insurgency. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, acknowledged last week that winning over Iraqis before the planned handover of some sovereign powers next month had been made considerably harder by the photos.

Last week, denunciations and threats rang out from mosques across Iraq during Friday prayers. Powerful clerics ridiculed the U.S. occupation authority's central justification for the war -- that it would bring justice to a country suffering under dictatorship -- and warned or reprisals if those who carried out the torture were not tried by an independent court.

"Saddam didn't claim that he was for freedom and equality," Moqtada Sadr, the rebellious Shiite cleric now commanding a thousands-strong anti-U.S. militia, told hundreds of worshippers in the southern city of Kufa. "I call for humanitarian organizations to change this prison into a humanitarian establishment, and to try the criminals in honest courts as soon as possible. Otherwise, we'll do the necessary actions in ways that you don't expect."