Arab Reaction to Photos of Prisoner Abuse
The sexual and physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war, a direct violation of the Geneva Conventions by US soldiers at the Abu Ghuraib prison, has naturally produced outrage in the Arab world. This is a big thing, folks. I saw the American rightwing talking heads Friday evening trying to shrug off the photos and the incidents as minor affairs. They are not, in the world of public diplomacy. Can you imagine what the mood would be like in the United States if some foreign power had treated US POWs like this and then the photos came out?
Samia Nakhoul of Reuters has gathered up some immediate reactions from the person on the street, a few of which I quote here. She reports that a Syrian woman, Khadija Mousa, said, “They keep asking why we hate them? Why we detest them? Maybe they should look well in the mirror and then they will hate themselves . . . What I saw is very very humiliating. The Americans are showing their true image.“
Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the pan-Arabist London newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, said, “The liberators are worse than the dictators. This is the straw that broke the camel’s back for America . . . “That really, really is the worst atrocity. It affects the honour and pride of Muslim people. It is better to kill them than sexually abuse them.”“
Daud al-Shiryan of Saudi Arabia: “This will increase the hatred of America, not just in Iraq but abroad. Even those who sympathised with the Americans before will stop. It is not just a picture of torture, it is degrading. It touches on morals and religion . . . Abu Ghraib prison was used for torture in Saddam’s time. People will ask now what’s the difference between Saddam and Bush. Nothing!”
Driver Hatem Ali, 30: “Americans are racists and cowards, that’s what I understood from these pictures.”
Mahmoud Walid, a 28-year-old Egyptian writer: “These soldiers are being touted as the saviours of the Iraqi people and America claims to be the moral leader of the world, but they have been caught with their pants down, they have been exposed, the whole world sees them as they really are.”
Az-Zaman did an interview with General Mark Kimmitt in which it asked him whether the soldiers who abused these prisoners were Jewish, or possibly Israeli, and whether Israeli security forces were helping the US at Abu Ghuraib. Kimmitt said “no.” But clearly that is the rumor in Iraq, that this abuse was carried out by Zionists put on a long leash by the US military. Since the United States has in fact coddled the Israeli army with regard to its abuse of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the Arab public has gotten used to thinking of Washington and Tel Aviv as a team, dedicated to oppressing and humiliating Arabs. The photographs are graphic illustrations of racism, hatred and contempt by some Americans for Arabs.
Although Kimmitt maintains that these actions were carried out by only a handful of soldiers out of 130,000, the commanding officer at Abu Ghuraib would not have been suspended if there had not been something systemic here. Some of the blame is being put on intelligence field officers who encouraged clueless young reservists to soften up the prisoners for interrogation. But another possible guilty party is “civilian contractors” (some would say mercenaries): ‘ A military report into the Abu Ghuraib case – parts of which were made available to the Guardian newspaper showed that private contractors were supervising interrogations in the prison. One civilian contractor was accused of raping a young, male prisoner but has not been charged because military law has no jurisdiction over him. The military investigation names two US contractors, CACI International and the Titan Corporation, for their involvement in Abu Ghuraib. ‘ Actually, Titan only provided translators, not interrogators.
Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker gives further evidence that these prison abuses were systemic and not the work of a few out of control privates. He quotes a report by Major General Antonio Taguba:
Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee. ‘
In significant part these practices are a direct result of Rumsfeld policies–the Pentagon’s kidnapping of unprepared reservists for long-term military duty in Iraq, supplemented by unregulated cowboy security firms. It has already been forgotten that some of the fighting around Najaf was done by US private security guards, who even deployed an attack helicopter! The rhetoric that all those who oppose the US presence in Iraq are “terrorists” also dehumanizes prisoners of war and implies that they are akin to the 9/11 hijackers, when in fact many of them are just neighborhood boys who took up a gun to defend their city quarter from what they saw as a foreign incursion.
I really wonder whether, with the emergence of these photos, the game isn’t over for the Americans in Iraq. Is it realistic, after the bloody siege of Fallujah and the Shiite uprising of early April, and in the wake of these revelations, to think that the US can still win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi Arab public?