Inside Saddam's prison

The pictures of the ex-dictator in his underwear refocus world attention on America's treatment of other "high-value" detainees.

Published May 23, 2005 3:50PM (EDT)

The three rows of single-story buildings stand among a wilderness of flat scrub, surrounded by a double ring of razor wire. In the winter the wind blows squalls of dust up from the south that insinuates itself through doors and windows, and into the clothes of the U.S. soldiers who guard this place. The quiet is broken by the regular sound of the U.S. Apache and Kiowa Warrior helicopters on patrol, as they wheel low across the dirt looking for insurgents attempting to infiltrate the vast closed zone that is the hinterland of Baghdad International Airport and its constellation of camps.

Inside the buildings of Camp Cropper are the windowless cells, two meters square. The only entry is through bolted steel doors with a metal ventilation flap placed a meter from the ground. For those who are held inside for up to 23 hours a day, it is their only view of the outside world. Sometimes the flaps are sealed as punishment.

There is a small shower block at the end of each row. Separate from the cellblocks -- once used by the Republican Guard -- are the prison's administration wing and hospital infirmary. Set to one side are the metal cabins where the interrogations take place.

For Saddam Hussein -- and the other "high-value detainees" -- the shrinking of his world to the tiny boxes of Camp Cropper is the most visible sign of how his life has been transformed. Where once there were dozens of palaces, there is now only this.

Most senior members of Saddam's former regime -- about half the prisoners held inside the camp -- are in solitary confinement. For some that has meant almost two years without any contact with anyone except their CIA interrogators, the occasional lawyer and their guards.

For two years Camp Cropper has been closed to the world. Until last week the only details of Saddam's imprisonment were the short reports of the International Commission for the Red Cross, which had visited him; a few sketchy details from a letter to his wife; and anonymous reports that Saddam had been tending some plants in the exercise yard where prisoners are allowed out for an hour a day.

That was until last week. Now, suddenly, the secretive world of Camp Cropper has been blown open -- and in the way designed to most antagonize the escalating security crisis in Iraq. In the space of a few days Saddam has been exposed before the world in two tabloids belonging to Rupert Murdoch, as a pathetic figure emerging from the camp's washroom in his underwear as he washes his trousers. U.S. officials believe the pictures were taken between January and April 2004 when he was in U.S. military custody. Apparently cameras were banned, but he was under 24-hour video surveillance, so the belief is that some of the stills, and perhaps all, are probably from that video surveillance footage.

In a separate interview, a top U.N. weapons inspector who was involved in interrogating prisoners at Camp Cropper has revealed to the Observer details about the regime inside the prison, including suggestions that some of those arriving at the facility had been badly beaten.

Rod Barton, a former special advisor to the Iraq Survey Group and a leading expert in chemical and biological weapons, has spoken out to highlight what he claims is the unjust detention of "innocent scientists" at the Baghdad jail. He has also revealed that the group of interrogators at Camp Cropper included at least three British intelligence officers.

The publication on May 20 of the photographs of Saddam wearing only underwear led the Bush administration to open an investigation into how the pictures made their way into tabloid newspapers in London and New York, apparently supplied by a source in the U.S. military in contravention of the Geneva Conventions. The newspapers, the Sun in London and the New York Post, both part of Murdoch's media empire, said the pictures had been provided by American military sources to "undermine the Iraqi rebellion." If true -- and it is a big if -- then it is a gambit that the U.S. government has tried before, and found to be wanting: In December 2003 it released pictures of Saddam in his cell immediately after his capture, appearing disheveled as he was examined by a doctor.

In a statement issued May 20, the White House said those earlier pictures were of a different nature. "Those photos were released for overriding needs of security, to demonstrate to the Iraqi people and the insurgents that Saddam Hussein was in fact in custody, which we believed was important to help quell the insurgency," the statement said. "The recent release of photos had no such justification." And in any case that first gambit failed: The insurgency got worse.

The images of Saddam, which were joined by fresh images from inside the camp in Saturday's Sun -- including one of a stooped Ali Hussein al-Majid ("Chemical Ali") with a stick and wearing a bathrobe -- have once again drawn the Bush administration into an international row over the conduct of American-controlled detention facilities -- from Bagram in Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay, and now Camp Cropper.

Although the likely impact of the pictures on the insurgency was at first dismissed as negligible, within a few hours of the photographs' release a sense of alarm was spreading through the White Hose as officials met urgently to discuss the possible repercussions of the images. By the afternoon of May 20, Bush's deputy press secretary, Trent Duffy, had been sent out to brief the media. The release of the pictures, he said, violated American military regulations and almost certainly the Geneva Conventions too.

Unlike the previous anonymous briefers, Duffy was less sanguine about the potential harm of the photographs' release in the wake of a further U.S. report confirming prisoner abuse -- this time at Bagram in Afghanistan -- and following global riots over the claim that a Quran had been flushed down the toilet at Guantánamo Bay.

"I think this could have a serious impact," Duffy said, as he compared it with the revelations of prisoner abuses last year. Once again the White House had been forced to condemn the actions of those responsible for managing its detention facilities set up to process those it had captured in its "war on terror." "There will be a thorough investigation into this," Duffy said, adding that the president was 'upset' about the release and 'wants to get to the bottom of it immediately.'"

"These photos were wrong; they're a clear violation of Department of Defense directives, and possibly Geneva Convention guidelines for the humane treatment of detained individuals," Duffy said. "Multinational forces in Iraq, as well as the president, are disappointed at the possibility that someone responsible for the security, welfare and detention of Saddam Hussein would take and provide these photos for public release."

The publication of the photographs has come at the end of a bad week for the administration as it has been forced to fight allegations of abuse in every corner of the war on terror. Although the White House was successful in persuading Newsweek to retract a story on abuse involving the Quran at Guantánamo Bay after riots in Afghanistan and around the Islamic world, it was then confronted by allegations that U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan had overseen a regime of terror at the holding facility at Bagram Airport near Kabul.

Then came the pictures of Saddam, which powerfully recalled other terrible images that have emerged from Iraq: of the sexual abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by U.S. troops and trophy photographs taken by British soldiers as they abused Iraqi looters in the south. And although the new pictures may have been taken as long as a year ago, according to the Pentagon, which has examined the images, that is all the more serious for the U.S. authorities, as Saddam was at that point classified a prisoner of war and subject to protection from "public curiosity" and humiliation. This critical question also remained unanswered over weekend: Who took the photographs and why?

It has emerged that the Sun -- or journalists in News International at least -- had sat on the images for a considerable time, apparently concerned over the authenticity of the images after the scandal surrounding the Daily Mirror's publication of fake pictures of British soldiers apparently abusing an Iraqi.

But what is most worrying is the confirmation of long-held suspicions -- reported by the Guardian last May -- that some prisoners were subjected to coercive interrogation that could be classified as being abusive. The treatment of high-value detainees like Saddam has been highlighted by Barton, a former Australian intelligence officer, who was involved with interviews at the camp. "Interrogations are carried out in metal portakabins on the prison complex. What happens is we decide when to interrogate them. This is normally at the dead of night, which was deliberate to disorient them. The prisoner had no idea where he was being taken."

Barton said he witnessed no physical abuse at the jail, but he believed some prisoners had been physically "softened" up before they arrived in an induction process known as "purgatory." He told the Observer last week: "The prisoners, who I believe had been abused, were not the scientists. I believe some were former intelligence officials who had been beaten prior to their arrival at Camp Cropper to soften them up for questioning." Barton, who saw photographs of at least two prisoners with bad facial abrasions, asked questions and was told they had received them when they "resisted arrest." He said: "I remember seeing one middle-aged man who was paunchy and balding, and my view was he 'put up one hell of a fight' ... He had not just been hit once but repeatedly."

Describing the general conditions, Barton said: "Sometimes the prisoners would push the flap open to look out into the exercise yard or to get fresh air. The guards could lock the flap as punishment. Exercise was permitted on a rotation basis for half an hour a day, although this was increased to one hour after the Red Cross protested in January 2004."

He also revealed that last July, when the Iraqi provisional government took over, the British government decided it would be illegal to allow their interrogators to continue to question detainees or to use information from such interviews.

It is a slow process. But like Guantánamo and Bagram -- and like the process of "rendition" of terrorist suspects by the United States to foreign countries, where they can be tortured -- the secrets of Camp Cropper are now emerging into the light.

By Antony Barnett et al.

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