Rumsfeld plays generation game at Abu Ghraib

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The Independent Online

Donald Rumsfeld visited the scene of the crime yesterday. He flew to Iraq for a tour of Abu Ghraib, the prison where the photographs of American soldiers sexually torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners were taken.

Donald Rumsfeld visited the scene of the crime yesterday. He flew to Iraq for a tour of Abu Ghraib, the prison where the photographs of American soldiers sexually torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners were taken.

He stood among a khaki sea of American troops and told them, quoting Abraham Lincoln, that "the United States is the last best hope of humankind".

But he said it in the place where for millions around the world, that image of America may have died. Where Private Lynndie England posed for the photographs that shocked the world: grinning, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, pointing at a row of naked, hooded men's genitals; dragging a naked man across the floor on a leash.

Mr Rumsfeld told the soldiers: "You know, they've written about the World War II generation as being the greatest generation... It's this generation right now that is the next greatest generation. And I think there are millions and millions of Americans, probably millions and millions of Iraqis and Afghanistan citizens that understand that same thing. You all are the greatest generation."

He was speaking where American soldiers set dogs on helpless naked Iraqi men whose hands were tied. Where an Iraqi man was forced to stand on a box with wires attached to his body, and told he would be electrocuted if he fell off. Where an Iraqi was tied across a metal bedframe, his back arched excruciatingly, and forced to wear women's underwear over his face.

Mr Rumsfeld compared the criticism he and the Bush administration is facing over the prisoner abuses now to that which Lincoln faced during the American civil war. When civil war soldiers looked back, he said, "they knew it had been worth it", and he told today's American soldiers: "One day you're going to look back and you're going to be proud of your service and you're going to say it was worth it."

This was Mr Rumsfeld's reaction to the prison where one Iraqi former inmate has come forward to claim he is one of the naked men in the photographs and that he was forced to masturbate in front of a female soldier. Where a second came forward this week and claimed that when representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the jail, soldiers hid prisoners whose bodies bore the signs of beating, and threatened the others with punishment if they spoke about what was going on there.

When soldiers reopened the prison last June, they hung a sign on the gate that read: "America is a friend of all the Iraqi people." But that is not the image that Iraqis have of Abu Ghraib under the Americans. Seared indelibly on every Iraqi's mind is Private Lynndie England, grinning over the humiliation of the helpless and naked Iraqis beside her.

The Defence Secretary was sticking to the script yesterday, blaming Pte England and a handful of her colleagues. What happened at Abu Ghraib was the work of "a few who have betrayed our values and sullied the reputation of our country", he said.

Standing side by side with Mr Rumsfeld, General Richard Myers, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "Those who committed crimes will be dealt with and the American people will be proud of it and the Iraqi people will be proud."

But there is increasing evidence, from the testimony of soldiers who served at Abu Ghraib and from the Red Cross, that the abuse was systematic and went far beyond the work of a few soldiers. Soldiers who served at Abu Ghraib, from the former commander at the prison, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who has been relieved of that duty in disgrace, to NCOs, have said that it was military intelligence officers who ordered the guards to abuse Iraqi prisoners.

"Sometimes they asked the guards to do something that was totally against what you believed in doing," Sergeant Joseph Mood told The New York Times.

This comes even as it emerged yesterday that the CIA's interrogation techniques for al-Qa'ida suspects are so brutal that the FBI has forbidden its agents to sit in on CIA interrogations.

There is growing evidence that Pte England and her colleagues may be being turned into the scapegoats. She has claimed she was ordered to pose for the photographs. The original version of events, in which Pte England and her boyfriend, Specialist Charles Graner, took the photographs for their own amusement has been challenged by a different scenario, in which they were ordered to take the pictures so they could be used to soften the prisoners up.

And that version of events was supported this week when a second Iraqi, Saddam Saleh, came forward to say that he was one of the men in the pictures. Mr Saleh says he is the third man from the right in the row of naked prisoners Pte England is pictured pointing and grinning at. But he says he only knows the hooded man is him because after the photograph was taken, American soldiers brought the photograph to his cell and pointed him out, apparently in an effort to humiliate him further. Mr Saleh also claims that he was tortured and humiliated continuously for 18 days, during which time he was not interrogated, but that the torture stopped abruptly and interrogations began at almost the same time, which would support the suggestion that the mistreatment was a strategy to soften prisoners, not random cruelty.

It is Mr Saleh who has also claimed that American prison guards threatened him and other prisoners with punishment if they revealed what was going on to the Red Cross who visited the prison. It is impossible to verify his allegations ­ but he does have prisoner release papers, which give his prisoner number as 200144.

Added to this is the huge number of Iraqis who have come forward to say they were abused in the custody of US forces, not only at Abu Ghraib but at detention centres across Iraq.

Mr Rumsfeld's chutzpah was not in doubt. Facing calls for his resignation at home, he flew 15 hours from the US to the prison at the centre of the storm that threatens to engulf him and the entire Bush administration. But his words could not cover the enormity of what happened at Abu Ghraib.

As Mr Rumsfeld toured Abu Ghraib, Iraqi prisoners gave him the thumbs-down sign, or shook their fists at him. The Red Cross says as many as 90 per cent of those detained in Iraq may be innocent of any crime.

Mr Rumsfeld was talking the rhetoric of 2001 and the "war on terror", of a heroic, essentially good America taking on evil. But Abu Ghraib has changed all that.