The top military commander in Iraq told Congress on Wednesday that U.S. personnel who have received relatively light punishment in the prisoner abuse scandal may yet face criminal charges.
Meantime, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee revealed that the Pentagon has recovered another disk containing more photos of prisoner abuse.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said that as the investigation into prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and elsewhere progresses, others who have received reprimands or not faced any punishment may be charged.
“We may find that the evidence produced in these investigations not only leads to more courts-martial, but causes us to revisit actions previously taken ... in cases which may have been handled to date by adverse administrative action,” he said at a hearing that examined a broad range of issues, including prospects for a smooth transfer of political control to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.
Sanchez was joined at the hearing by Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, deputy commander for detainee operations in Iraq.
Lawmakers to see new photos
Early in the hearing, committe chairman Sen. John Warner, R-Va., announced that another disk containing photos of prisoner abuse had been found and said that a procedure was being worked out for lawmakers to see them.
More images were put on display at the Capitol last week, and the pictures elicited shock from lawmakers, who said they saw Iraqi prisoners forced into sexually humiliating positions.
In other testimony, Sanchez, the top commander of ground troops in Iraq, vowed that the investigation of abuse at Abu Ghraib will follow the chain of command, adding, "and that includes me."
Abizaid, who is responsible for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, also told the committee that the military will address "systemic problems" at the prison.
"We will follow the trail of evidence wherever it leads," he said. "We will continue to correct systemic problems. We will hold people accountable and, in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, we will take appropriate action."
"From evidence already gathered, we believe that systemic problems existed at the prison and may have contributed to events there," he said.
Sanchez, Abizaid and Miller all denied approving abusive interrogation techniques to soften up Iraqi prisoners but acknowledged there may have been confusion at lower levels of the U.S. military.
But asked by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., to explain what he called a “culture of abuse” in the prison system, Abizaid denied that any such culture existed.
Abizaid also told the committee he took personal responsibility, but said the abuse would not deflect U.S. forces from their task in Iraq.
The hearing came as the first U.S. soldier to be tried in connection with the Abu Ghraib abuse pleaded guilty. A U.S. special court-martial in Iraq sentenced Spc. Jeremy Sivits to the maximum possible one year in prison and ordered him discharged from the army for bad conduct over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Sivits, 24, also promised to testify against some of the six other soldiers indicted. He also confessed to pushing a prisoner into the now infamous picture of a pile of naked Iraqis.
The hearings themselves became the subject of controversy on Tuesday when a Republican House committee chairman said they were “disserving” the military effort in Iraq.
The Senate committee is “basically driving the story” of prisoner abuse, said California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who heads the House Armed Services Committee.
Without mentioning Hunter, Warner said at the outset of Wednesday's hearing that the Congress is a “coequal branch of government” under the Constitution and properly was looking into the abuses.
Warner also released a letter in which he said the generals could appear by video teleconference. He said he was informed by the Pentagon that the generals would be in Washington for conferences and would not be pulled away from their duties in order to testify.
Aggressive Republican questioners
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Susan Collins of Maine have been among the most aggressive questioners of witnesses in hearings that followed publication in the past three weeks of photographs that appear to document abuse at the prison near Baghdad.
Hunter’s objection is only the latest from congressional Republicans about the handling of the prisoner abuse scandal.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has said, “The people who are against the war are using this to their political ends.” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has said he is outraged by “the press and the politicians and the political agendas that are being served by this.”
President Bush, in recent days, has stressed repeatedly that neither the prison abuse nor the insurgency in Iraq will interfere with administration’s plans to transfer political control to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.
Who’ll be in charge?
Asked about that date, Abizaid said somberly, “It is achievable — but it needs to emerge soon as to who is going to be in charge (among the Iraqis) — what their names are and what they’re going to do.”
The administration has said it is working with a U.N. envoy to come up with names for an interim government to take control then. Administration officials said Tuesday they hoped those names would be chosen by month’s end.
The issue has proved delicate. Political factions inside Iraq are jockeying over who should make up that government.
Abizaid’s comments are the first whereby an administration official indicated the Iraqis must be chosen soon in order to give the transition a chance of working.
In response to a question, Abizaid also confirmed that 100 or so “high value” prisoners in Iraq were being held by the Iraq Survey Group, responsible for trying to find weapons of mass destruction. This group is distinct from the forces under Sanchez’s command.
Abizaid said these detainees are held apart from other prisoners in part so they could some day be turned over to a new Iraqi government for trial.
Wolfowitz admits misjudgments
The Senate hearing, its third on the abuse scandal, follows testimony by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on Tuesday in which he said the Pentagon made a number of misjudgments about Iraq, and that the future is uncertain.
About the war itself, Wolfowitz said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the Pentagon failed to anticipate that:
- Saddam Hussein would be financing attacks on Americans until he was captured.
- One of Saddam’s principal deputies, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, would still be bankrolling operations even now.
- Saddam loyalists would have hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts in neighboring countries to support operations against the U.S.-led occupation force and its Iraqi sympathizers. The old intelligence service would keep fighting.
Wolfowitz said U.S. officials also were wrong to impose a severe “de-Baathification” policy. The decision, recently modified, purged members of Saddam’s Baath party from the government.
The move threw out of work thousands of teachers, military men and others, many of whom had been required to join the party for employment, and was blamed by some for not only boosting joblessness but helping fuel the insurgency.
Wolfowitz said it’s impossible to say how long a large American military force will have to stay in Iraq after political power is handed to Iraqis on June 30.
Wolfowitz also said that the next year to 18 months will be critical in Iraq because it will take that long to stand up fully trained and equipped Iraqi security forces and to elect a representative government.
Occupation forces have signed up some 200,000 Iraqis for police, army and other security jobs. Training has been slow, however, insurgent violence is on the rise and Wolfowitz said Iraqis remain far from capable of securing the country without the 160,000-member U.S.-led occupation forces.