A beacon of freedom?

By Stephen W. Stromberg

Published August 9, 2004 6:28PM (EDT)

The transfer of sovereignty to a hand-picked cabinet in Iraq has done little to halt shameless prisoner abuse in the ailing nation, it seems. But instead of American G.I.s doing the damage, it's the new Iraqi authorities. And this time, they're not taking photographs. An article in yesterday's Oregonian details how a group of Oregon national guardsmen discovered an Iraqi torture den just after the late-June power switch.

The guardsmen, determined to ameliorate the black eye the armed services in Iraq suffered after Abu Ghraib, called in help, administered first aid and demanded answers from the Iraqi guards on hand.

"Some of the detainees said they had been held for three days with little water and no food. 'Many of these prisoners had bruises and cuts and belt or hose marks all over,' [Capt. Jarrell] Southall said. At least one had a gunshot wound to the knee.

"'I witnessed prisoners who were barely able to walk,' Southall said.

"The Oregon soldiers moved the prisoners into the shade of a nearby wall, cut them loose and handed out water bottles. They administered first aid when necessary and gave intravenous fluids to at least one dehydrated prisoner.

"At about that time, U.S. military police arrived on the scene and began disarming the Iraqi policemen and moving them farther away from the prisoners, according to Southall.

"As U.S. soldiers continued to fan out in the building, they found more bound-and-gagged prisoners, and "hoses, broken lamps and chemicals of some variety," which could have been used as torture devices, Southall said.

"Hendrickson radioed up the chain of command in the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, relaying what he had seen and asking for instructions. As the soldiers waited, Southall said, the Iraqi policemen began to get "defiant and hostile" toward the Americans.

"It wasn't long before the order came: Stand down. Return the prisoners to the Iraqi authorities and leave the detention yard."

So with a hasty power transfer already completed, the Americans couldn't do anything about it. But we doubt most Iraqis will be in the mood to make those kinds of distinctions. "'Iraqis want us to respect their sovereignty, but the problem is we will be blamed for leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse,' said Michael Rubin, a former adviser to the interim Iraqi government who is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "We did not generally put good people in.'"

Stephen W. Stromberg

Stephen W. Stromberg is a former editorial fellow at Salon.

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