Torture was routine, soldiers, Iraqis charge

Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia charged nearly two months ago that U.S. intelligence operatives directed torture of Iraqi prisoners. Now, reports by Major Gen. Antonio Taguba and others reveal systematic torture and abuse of detainees by U.S. military and private personnel, carrying out policy from on high. These reports contradict efforts by White House and Pentagon officials to pin all blame on a few low-ranking soldiers.

Mejia has offered to testify before Congress about torture of Iraqi detainees that he witnessed last year at the Al Assad U.S. air base, northwest of Baghdad. But first he has to get the U.S. military to let him leave Ft. Stewart, Ga., where he is confined. Mejia, 25, is facing a court martial because he refused to return to Iraq from leave last October. He turned himself in to the military on March 15 this year and applied for conscientious objector status, citing the brutality and suffering he had seen in the conduct of the war.

In his CO application, Mejia provided details of abuse that he saw at Al Assad. Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier, which is supporting Mejia’s application, gave the World a summary of the allegations.

Mejia’s National Guard platoon was assigned to run a prison camp at Al Assad. They were instructed not to call it a POW camp to avoid Geneva Convention rules. Instead, it was to be called a “detention camp” for interrogation of prisoners. Most of the detainees had been seized in military sweeps. Mejia felt many were “no Mejia’s platoon was never trained in handling prisoners. There was no medical care for the prisoners. The soldiers were instructed by “three mysterious guys” not in uniform, who did not give their real names. The first thing they were told, Mejia said, was “your job is sleep deprivation – do anything to accomplish this.” “Anything” included yelling, slamming sledgehammers into the wall, or holding a loaded 9-millimeter pistol next to a prisoner’s ear.

Instead of acting on Mejia’s allegations, his commanders charged him with desertion. His court martial is scheduled to begin May 19 at Ft. Stewart.

In response to the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the Iraqi Communist Party has called for United Nations supervision of human rights in Iraq. The ICP’s Center for Human Rights, which long fought torture by Saddam Hussein at the same prison, said in a May 2 statement, “This new scandal comes in the aftermath of vicious violations that had been highlighted by international human rights organizations … which included the use of excessive force and a policy of collective punishment and siege of cities as demonstrated in Falluja where hundreds of innocent civilians were killed.”

The ICP statement said the Iraqi people “equally condemned” “terrorist acts … including explosions, assassinations and barbaric attacks targeting mainly civilians.”

ICP spokesperson Salam Ali told the World control over all detentions should be handed over to Iraqis under UN supervision. He also called for an international inquiry, with involvement of Iraqi organizations, into the tortures. “The people responsible for violations should be tried under Iraqi law,” Ali said.

Speaking by phone from Baghdad, Huda Al-Jazairy, an Iraqi mother, told the World, “After I saw the photos and the videos, I couldn’t sleep all night. The Americans speak about democracy and freedom. Now, we saw another picture.”

Her husband’s friend, she said, was just let out of Abu Ghraib. He had been held there about four months. He was given very little food, no clean water, and was severely beaten. “There was no reason,” she said. He and his brother had been walking down a road. When U.S. vehicles passed, the two became frightened and started running. They were caught and jailed by the Americans, who claimed that they had guns – something they firmly deny.

Saddam Hussein behaved the same way, Al-Jazairy said. “Now, Americans came and did the same.” The justification for the war and occupation is “all lies,” she said. “The first thing to do is to get the Americans out.”

Military mom Pat Gunn, from Lansdowne, Pa., told the World she doesn’t know how to react to “this latest horror.” She worried that “the retaliation is going to be tremendous.” Her son Jason, 25, was badly injured in Iraq last year but was forced to return to combat, and recently his stay was extended.

“I will never speak against a United States soldier, I just cannot,” she said. “But I can say, look what President Bush has done to our world! The horror of what he has done is beyond words. So many innocent people caught in the middle of this firestorm with no way out. I only can pray that this will end soon.”

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org.