Who's at fault in Iraq

The U.S. blames ordinary troops for Abu Ghraib and Iraqi leaders for the recent increase in violence.

Published April 25, 2005 2:20PM (EDT)

The U.S. Army investigation into the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib has cleared four out of five top officers of any responsibility for the scandal that shocked America and the world. The probe effectively exonerated Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior commander in Iraq at the time of the abuse. It also cleared three of Sanchez's deputies.

That has led to accusations that the investigation is a whitewash that has let ordinary soldiers carry the blame, while letting off their commanding officers. The only officer recommended for punishment is Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinksi, who was in charge of Abu Ghraib at the time. She is expected to receive a reprimand for dereliction of duty.

The pictures of American soldiers abusing and torturing prisoners created a global backlash against the U.S. presence in Iraq, outraging allies and opponents alike.

Several low-ranking soldiers have been prosecuted. They blamed senior officers, saying they were just following orders, but the new probe has now cleared those officers.

The investigation was intended as the military's conclusion on the ultimate responsibility for the scandal. It is the only U.S. inquiry so far to have had the power to apportion blame. Critics say it has made scapegoats of ordinary soldiers. "This decision unfortunately continues a pattern of exoneration and indeed promotion for many of the individuals at the heart of the torture scandal," said Amnesty International spokesman Alistair Hodgett.

Army officials say 125 soldiers have been tried at courts-martial or been otherwise punished. The officials have always denied that the abuse was systemic or planned by the senior military hierarchy. Yet some soldiers and Karpinski have said their superiors encouraged the abusive practices and relaxed rules about harsh treatment of prisoners.

Guy Womack, a lawyer for Spec. Charles Graner, who has been sentenced to 10 years for abusing prisoners, called for action to be taken against at least two of the senior officers.

Other official investigations have taken a stronger line. One probe by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger concluded that Sanchez should have taken firmer action in November 2003, when the Army first realized the scale of the abuse. An investigation last summer found that the "action and inaction" of Sanchez and his senior officers "indirectly contributed" to what was going on at Abu Ghraib.

The report followed a week of renewed bloodshed -- including the massacre of 19 men in a football stadium in Haditha and the shooting down of a civilian helicopter -- that appears to have been encouraged by three months of political stalemate since January's elections. Saturday, the U.S. military arrested six Iraqi men in connection with the downing of the helicopter.

The report also follows increasing disillusionment among foreign diplomats and Iraqi party leaders over the choice two weeks ago by the Shiite majority of Ibrahim al-Jaafari for prime minister. Iraqi and Western officials have told the Observer that they fear Jaafari lacks the leadership skills to guide Iraq at such a crucial time.

According to a report in Saturday's New York Times, the political impasse is largely the result of leading Kurdish political figures trying to stall the formation of a new government in an effort to force out Jaafari. "The Kurds are intent on delaying the government so that Jaafari will fall," Sami al-Askari, a member of the Shiite alliance, told the paper.

Last week British and U.S. officials blamed the increase in violence on the continuing inability of Iraq's political parties to agree on a government -- a hiatus that bodes ill for negotiations on a new constitution due later this year.

A spokesman for the Kurdish alliance denied on Friday that there was any effort to unseat Jaafari. However, Kurdish leaders have never been comfortable with religious figures such as Jaafari, the leader of a popular Shiite religious party. Under Iraq's transitional law, Jaafari will lose his position if he does not name a cabinet by May 7. If he is displaced, Iraq's new president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and his deputies would choose a prime minister.

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