An Abu Ghraib Offender's Return to Iraq Is Stopped

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Sgt. Santos Cardona, second from right, using his dog Duco in an attempt to control prisoner Mohammad Bollendia at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 12, 2003.

As if the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal weren't bad enough for America's image in the Middle East, it briefly appeared to much of the world that one of the men implicated in the scandal was returning to the scene of the crime.

The U.S. military told TIME on Thursday that Sgt. Santos Cardona, one of the soldiers convicted for his role in Abu Ghraib, having served his sentence, had just been sent back to serve in Iraq. Friday morning, in an apparent response to the TIME story and other media inquiries, the Pentagon at first announced that its decision to transfer Cardona to Iraq was being "evaluated" and that Cardona's movement with his unit into Iraq from a staging area in Kuwait had been "stopped." But the U.S. military in Iraq went further. "He's not coming to Iraq," Lt. Col. Josslyn L. Aberle, chief of media operations for the Multinational Corps in Iraq stated flatly. And by Friday afternoon, the Pentagon said in a statement that Cardona "will depart Kuwait and will return to Fort Bragg immediately where he will be assigned duties commensurate with his Military Occupation Specialty and rank that allows him to be a productive member of the military police corps and the United States Army."

Cardona, 32, is a military policeman from Fullerton, Calif., who served in 2003 and 2004 at Abu Ghraib as a dog handler. After pictures of Cardona using the animal to threaten Iraqis were made public, he was convicted in May of dereliction of duty and aggravated assault, the equivalent of a felony in the U.S. civilian justice system. The prosecution demanded prison time, but a military judge instead imposed a fine and reduction in rank. Though Cardona was not put behind bars, he was also required to serve 90 days of hard labor at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

Before Cardona boarded a plane at Pope Air Force Base this week for the long flight to his unit's Kuwait staging area, he told close friends and family that he dreaded returning to Iraq. One family member described him as "depressed," though stoic about his fate. According to a close friend with whom Cardona spoke just before his departure, the soldier is fearful that he remains a marked man, forever linked to the horrors of Abu Ghraib — he appears in at least one al-Qaeda propaganda video depicting the abuse — and that he and comrades serving with him in Iraq could become targets for terrorists. To make matters worse, his 23rd MP Company had been selected to train Iraqi police, which have been the target of frequent assassination attempts and, according to U.S. intelligence are heavily infiltrated by insurgents. Attempts to reach Cardona directly were unsuccessful.

But Cardona's physical well-being was not the only issue of concern connected to his aborted transfer to Iraq. According to former senior U.S. military officers and others interviewed by TIME, sending a convicted abuser back to Iraq to train local police would have sent the wrong signal at a time when the U.S. is trying to bolster the beleaguered government in Baghdad, where the horrors of Abu Ghraib are far from forgotten. "If news of this deployment is accurate, it represents appallingly bad judgment," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded a division in the first Gulf War. "The symbolic message perceived in Iraq will likely be that the U.S. is simply insensitive to the abuse of their prisoners."

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