Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 9 News List

US shoots itself in both feet over prison debacle

By Ian Fisher  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAGHDAD

The three times that Abbas Mehdi was interrogated by US soldiers, he claims that he told them the same thing: "I said, `You are creating enemies. You changed love into hate. Why do you make people hate you?'"

Released only two weeks ago from a succession of prisons here, Mehdi, a 51-year-old merchant with heart trouble, said he had not been treated as badly as the men he saw in photos that have shocked Iraq -- photos of black hoods, naked prisoners and leering American guards -- but roughly, all the same. It was not surprise that he felt when he saw the pictures on television last week, he said, but anger and disappointment at the US.

"I never would have expected this of them," said Mehdi, who said he was beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized for three days after his arrest in December, when soldiers found a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, which he said was not his, in the garden of his rented house.

"They are civilized people. When the Americans came I was so happy. I said, `We will have democracy. We will have freedom,"' he said.

"After I was arrested," he added, "the picture changed."

Interviews with several former prisoners here turned up no accounts as horrifying as the military's own report on the abuse that took place at the hands of US soldiers in Abu Ghraib, Iraq's most notorious prison under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and apparently once again now.

But the prisoners and human rights officials said scores of complaints documented a pattern of excessively rough treatment, which they said made the recent reports of much worse treatment less difficult to believe. And the allegations come at a bad time for the yearlong occupation here -- already accused of heavy-handedness in the siege of the rebellious city of Fallujah -- when many Iraqis are prepared to believe the worst about Americans.

For example, Muhammad al-Mussawi, a lawyer with the Human Rights Organization in Iraq, said that as the fighting in Fallujah peaked early last month, women who were prisoners at Abu Ghraib smuggled out leaflets claiming that they had been raped.

"As educated people, we didn't believe this," Mussawi said. "But after the big shock on TV, we thought, `This could be true.'"

He referred to the barrage

of coverage of the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

It was not possible to verify the claims of the Iraqis who said in interviews that they had been mistreated by the Americans. But such claims are being reported in Iraq with much more attention now than in the past, including interviews with two of the men said to be in the photos broadcast Monday by the Arab news channel al-Jazeera.

A man who gave his name and age as Abu Ahmad, 30, said he was arrested in November on charges of carrying out attacks against Americans. He said he and other prisoners had been beaten regularly at Abu Ghraib and had been forced to strip naked and bend over a wall, leading him to believe he would be raped.

"I realized that the reason for this was to break the spirit of the detainees before interrogation," he told an Iraqi employee of The New York Times in Najaf, the Shiite holy city south of Baghdad where the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is hiding out from the US military.

He maintained that he had

had nothing to do with al-Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, until after he was released from prison.

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