US officials split on whether to release images of abuse

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The Independent US

Top American officials and politicians are sharply divided over whether to release the hundreds of hitherto unpublished pictures and video clips from Abu Ghraib prison, showing even more shocking abuse of Iraqi detainees, as well as X-rated sexual antics by some of the soldiers who guarded them.

Top American officials and politicians are sharply divided over whether to release the hundreds of hitherto unpublished pictures and video clips from Abu Ghraib prison, showing even more shocking abuse of Iraqi detainees, as well as X-rated sexual antics by some of the soldiers who guarded them.

The images were shown by the Pentagon on Wednesday afternoon in two secure rooms on Capitol Hill - one on the Senate Side, the other on the House side of the building. They left most members of Congress who inspected them appalled - and in broad agreement that they could prove even more damaging than those that have already shaken the Bush administration to its foundation.

Some of the pictures depict further indignities apparently enforced on Iraqi prisoners, including women being made to bare their breasts for the camera, male prisoners forced to masturbate in front of their guards, a prisoner apparently about to be sodomised with a broomstick, and another man apparently repeatedly banging his head hard against a wall - either at the orders of his captors, or to spare himself some unspeakable new humiliation.

"There were some awful scenes," Richard Durbin, a Democratic Senator from Illinois, said. "It felt like you were descending into the rings of hell, and it was of our own creation."

The brutality seems to have been mingled with unbridled sexual behaviour by the US soldiers. According to several accounts, Private Lynndie England - already notorious as the female soldier holding a leash attached to the neck of a naked prisoner - was shown having apparently consensual sex with several partners and, US officials told NBC's Nightly News, in the presence of Iraqi detainees.

The images were shown just a few hours after Pte England, 21, appeared in a television interview in which she claimed to have been told to pose for the photos, which she said she found "rather weird". So far, seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company, which Pte England belonged to, have been charged with abuse offences. The first court-martial will begin in Baghdad on May 19, while two other soldiers - Sgts Ivan Frederick and Javal Davis - will face military trials on a date to be specified. Six more senior officers have been reprimanded. This procedure could see them thrown out of the armed forces.

Partly to protect the integrity of the trials, the Pentagon insists the pictures seen on Capitol Hill must remain secret, and many senior politicians seem to agree, adding that publication couldworsen the situation in the Middle East.

Pentagon officials admit some or all of the images could be circulating on CDs or cameras and could go public anytime. Now that the pictures have been seen by members of Congress some in the Bush administration believe their impact will be less when they do, inevitably, enter the public domain.

Several Senators and Representatives said after viewing the new pictures that they seemed to confirm that more soldiers than the seven charged were present. This implies that the abuse was not confined to a rogue unit, but was actively encouraged by the intelligence officers de facto in charge at Abu Ghraib.

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