Eight months after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the US Navy is investigating newly emerged photos that seem to show special forces soldiers sitting on hooded and handcuffed Iraqi detainees, during or shortly after the 2003 invasion. More than 40 such pictures were found by an Associated Press (AP) reporter on a commercial photo-sharing website. They were posted by a woman, AP said, who claimed her husband had brought them back after a tour of duty in Iraq.
The photos show smiling Navy Seals amid bound prisoners. One depicts a bloodied Iraqi with a gun held to his head.
Some are date-stamped May 2003, suggesting they were taken in the closing stages of the first military campaign, or shortly afterwards - perhaps around 1 May 2003, when President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to proclaim a premature end to "major combat operations".
According to the AP, the photos deal with the immediate aftermath of raids on Iraqi homes. One shows a man lying on his back with a boot on his chest, while in another a man has an automatic weapon pointed at his head, while a gloved thumb is pressed into his throat. A third photo shows a family cowering in a room.
Yesterday, a Navy spokesman promised a thorough investigation. "These photos raise a number of questions about the treatment of prisoners of war and detainees," he said, adding that the investigation would make clear whether any serious crimes or breaches of the Geneva Conventions had been committed. Whatever emerges, however, will not prove an embarrassment on the scale of Abu Ghraib, where pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners and sadistic abuse of detainees caused shock around the world when they were broadcast by CBS television last April.
Nor will the news inflict much political damage to Donald Rumsfeld who, according to White House officials, has agreed to stay on as Defence Secretary, probably until the end of 2005 at least. The Abu Ghraib scandals brought widespread demands for Mr Rumsfeld's resignation. Mr Bush defended him, and thus far charges have been brought against just seven low-ranking military personnel.
Nonetheless, the latest revelations will only add to the impression that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US authorities have turned a blind eye to how prisoners captured in the course of the "war on terror"are treated. The process began at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where a recently leaked Red Cross report accused the Pentagon, which runs the camp, of employing methods "tantamount to torture".
According to the New York Times yesterday, a Pentagon report into interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq found that senior officials paid little attention to what happened in the field, leaving local commanders to use practices that were in fact banned.