Senior general 'witnessed abuse of detainees'

The senior US commander in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, was accused yesterday of witnessing prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, in a powerful new allegation suggesting senior officials knew what was going on in Saddam Hussein's old torture chambers and either condoned it or did nothing to stop it.

The claim, which the US military command in Baghdad has denied, stems from a military hearing in April, weeks before the scandal became public. A recording of the hearing obtained by The Washington Post, shows that a military lawyer for a soldier facing court martial for his role in the abuse said he could produce evidence that General Sanchez had been at Abu Ghraib's notorious Tier IA.

The lawyer, Captain Robert Shuck, said he had heard it from Captain Donald Reese, the commander of the 372nd Military Police Company, the unit most directly implicated in the sexual humiliation and violence inflicted on prisoners. Captain Reese was willing to testify under oath to that effect, Captain Shuck added.

"Are you saying that Captain Reese is going to testify that General Sanchez was there and saw this going on?" Captain Shuck is asked in the key section of the recording. "That's what he told me," Captain Shuck replies. "I am an officer of the court, sir, and I would not lie. I'm not going to risk my career."

The Washington Post was unable to get a direct response from General Sanchez before publishing its story. Yesterday, his office in Baghdad issued a statement saying the report was false. But a spokesman was unwilling to make the transcript of the 2 April hearing available.

In previous statements, notably before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, General Sanchez has insisted he had no knowledge of the abuses until January, two months after the International Committee of the Red Cross made a detailed report. After he saw the report, he said, he ordered an immediate investigation.

The Post report says Captain Shuck claimed he had evidence that the supervisor of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, Captain Carolyn Wood, was "involved in intensive interrogations of detainees, condoned some activities and stressed that that was standard procedure".

President George Bush is launching a PR offensive to try to limit the fallout on his re-election chances. He starts a round of speeches with one tonight at the Army War College in Pennsylvania.

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