How the Prison Scandal Sabotages the U.S. in Iraq

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Demonstrators in London protest the abuse of Iraqi prisoners

There's no question U.S. officials are deeply aware of the damage done by the Abu Ghraib torture photographs. From President Bush on down, they've expressed outrage and revulsion at the images of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees in one of Saddam Hussein's old torture chambers. Inquiries have been launched and reprimands delivered, and the question of how this disaster was allowed to happen may remain a focus of public discussion in the U.S. for some time. But none of that is likely to undo the potentially catastrophic impact of those images on the ability of the U.S. to achieve its objectives in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. While Iraqis may share President Bush's outrage over the photographs, they are far less likely to have been shocked to learn that detainees have been abused by U.S. troops. Indeed, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned two weeks ago that addressing Iraqi concerns over the conditions under which detainees are being held in Iraq was an urgent priority for the U.S. occupation authority.

The Abu Ghraib photographs capped a month of bad news for the Bush administration from Iraq. There was the Shiite uprising and the mutilation of bodies at Fallujah, and the defection and dissolution of Iraqi security forces and mounting rebellion from inside the Iraqi Governing Council. There were the photographs of flag-draped coffins being flown home in a month when an average of four American soldiers were killed each day, and then the no-win standoffs with insurgents in both Fallujah and Najaf. And the fact that with the planned handover of symbolic sovereignty a month away, no plan was yet in place.

Days before the first photographs of detainee abuse appeared on CBS, a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Iraqis now want U.S. troops to go home immediately, even though they acknowledge that their departure might bring further instability. Those numbers captured a decisive swing away from the U.S. in the mood of Iraqis over the year since Saddam Hussein's regime fell. And that survey was taken before U.S. actions against insurgents at Fallujah and in Baghdad sparked widespread condemnation among even pro-U.S. Iraqis. It's a safe bet that in the wake of the mass circulation of the Abu Ghraib photographs across all media platforms in the Arab world, the number of Iraqis wanting an immediate U.S. withdrawal will almost certainly have increased.

Senator Joe Biden, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a supporter of the decision to invade Iraq, characterized the revelations of abuse as the single most significant blow to U.S. prestige in the Arab world over the past decade. Anthony Cordesman, the widely respected defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies was equally forthright: "Those Americans who mistreated the prisoners may not have realized it, but they acted in the direct interests of al-Qaeda, the insurgents, and the enemies of the U.S.," he said. The reason is that they came at a point when U.S. standing in the Arab world was already at an all-time low. Says Cordesman, "These negative images validate all other negative images and interact with them." In other words, they function as a multiplier by providing photographic "proof" of the demonic picture of the U.S. painted by anti-American propagandists.

Like a well-targeted attack-ad in a U.S. election campaign, the Abu Ghraib images make a visceral connection with an Arab audience, that no amount of contextualizing, apologies, reprimands or school-painting can reverse. No ad agency could have produced a more effective al-Qaeda recruitment tool: Bin Laden's movement presents its goal as the redemption of Muslim honor which has been "prostituted" before the West by "apostate" pro-U.S. regimes. Scenes of graphic humiliation of Muslims by American soldiers — women mocking the genitalia of naked men — will reinforce the appeal among the shamed young men of the Arab world of the extremists' message that violence against America as the path of Muslim redemption. And it's worth noting that even before the pictures — and the fighting at Fallujah — some 52 percent of Iraqis told Gallup's pollsters that attacks on U.S. forces could sometimes be justified.

Differing reaction to the pictures simply highlights the growing disconnect between the way Americans see themselves and their presence in Iraq, and the way it is seen by Iraqis and the wider Arab world. Most Americans see themselves as liberators in Iraq; most Iraqis — 71 percent according to the Gallup poll — see them as occupiers. U.S. officials and officers in Iraq are now under orders to do what they can to explain to Iraqis with whom they come in contact what has transpired. But the damage may be irreversible — and the sharp decline in Iraqi consent for a continued U.S. presence raises difficult questions for the transition. The U.S. has been planning to keep its troops in Iraq after the June 30 transfer of symbolic sovereignty to an as-yet undetermined Iraqi authority, and to eventually negotiate an agreement with a new government on maintaining a long-term security presence there. But the events of the past month may make it increasingly difficult for the U.S. to find Iraqis willing to endorse their ongoing presence.

The negative impact of the Abu Ghraib scandal on the ability of the U.S. to achieve its objectives appears to be felt more widely than in Iraq. The State Department's Intelligence and Research Department is reportedly warning that the fallout from the revelations has been devastating, not only in the Arab and Muslim world, but globally, even among some allies in the Coalition. In this wider setting, what is at stake is the benefit of the doubt granted by allies to the U.S. in the waging wars where legal gray areas abound — from the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo to the very invasion of Iraq in the first place. Coalition allies have suppressed their own disquiet when the U.S. has drifted outside of the framework of international law in pursuit of its war on terror, on the assumption that the U.S. can be trusted do the right thing.

But that trust may be shaken not so much by the photographs themselves, but by what they reveal about the level of oversight in the operations of U.S. forces. For example, two of the interrogators accused of abuses in the Abu Ghraib scandal are so-called "civilian contractors," men hired by private U.S. firms to whom the military has outsourced such sensitive functions as interrogating suspected insurgents. One of the companies named, the Virginia-based CACI, is still advertising jobs for interrogators on its web site, and the job definition specifies that the candidate would work under "moderate supervision." The phrase masks what may be a legal lacuna in which the more than 10,000 mercenaries operating as "security contractors" in Iraq operate. They're armed, often engaged in combat and other hostile relationships (such as interrogation) with the local population, and yet they aren't formally accountable under either U.S. military codes or Iraqi law. Even now, while the soldiers named in the Abu Ghraib inquiry face military justice, no action has been reported against the private contractors.

But the problem is obviously far greater than abuses by freelancers, and some of those soldiers currently bearing the blame are suggesting that responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib lies much higher up the chain, with U.S. military intelligence. Unfortunately, while the various inquiries may hold Americans' attention for some time to come, however, for Iraqis and much of the wider international community they are but footnotes.

The fallout from Abu Ghraib looks set to challenge Washington's grip on Iraq, by turning more Iraqis and more Arabs against the occupation. The Bush administration — and, indeed, the Democrats — remain committed to "stay the course" in Iraq. But once a majority of Iraqis don't want them there, it becomes unclear where exactly "the course" leads.