Images of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners have drawn sharp condemnation, both in the United States and abroad. The outrage coming from the Arab and Muslim world has been especially strong, and raises the question of whether Washington has done irreparable damage to its image in the region.
Prague, 3 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Photographs of U.S. soldiers subjecting Iraqi prisoners to abuse and humiliation have infuriated Iraqis, stirred anger in the Arab world, and dealt a severe blow to U.S. policy in the region.
The images -- first shown on U.S. television last week and broadcast throughout the world in the days that followed -- show naked Iraqi detainees being hooded, beaten, and subjected to humiliation. Some photographs show the prisoners being put in sexually suggestive poses while U.S. soldiers stand nearby and smile for the camera.
Other allegations have been made about British troops participating in similar abuse of Iraqi detainees in their custody. But it is the photographs of the U.S. troops that have caused the most resentment and anger.
Speaking on 30 April, U.S. President George W. Bush condemned the behavior of the American troops involved.
"I shared a deep disgust that those [Iraqi] prisoners were treated the way they were treated. Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people. That's not the way we do things in America," Bush said.
News agencies today quoted unnamed senior coalition sources as saying the U.S. military has reprimanded six officers in connection with the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghurayb prison outside Baghdad. It is not known if similar incidents took place at U.S. detentions centers elsewhere in Iraq.
U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, an opposition Democrat, said the Abu Ghurayb incident marks "the single most significant undermining act that's occurred in a decade in that region of the world in terms of our [U.S.] standing."
Baghdad-based journalist Hiwa Osman says the abuses made the headlines in the Iraqi media.
"The [newspapers] are divided, basically. Some are just doing straight, pure reporting; others are appalled by what's happening. Mostly, in general, there is shock and disbelief about what's happened," Osman said.
Osman says speculation has long existed about U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners. But many Iraqis discount such allegations as part of the perpetual wave of rumors about American troops.
"This was also taken as part of the other big campaign of rumors and propaganda against the Americans. That's why [nobody] took them seriously at the time. But these photos kind of showed a completely new thing to the Iraqis that they haven't been expecting, to be honest. They were hearing rumors, but not many people believed them, because they knew there was a concerted campaign of rumors and propaganda against the Americans in Iraq," Osman said.
That has all changed. Iraq's influential Association of Muslim Clerics yesterday called for an international investigation to be conducted into the allegations. Throughout the Arab region, the press has been united in condemning the abuse.
The Egyptian newspaper "Al-Ahram" writes in a commentary that "condemnation by the United States and Great Britain is not enough." It calls for the "rapid formation of an international tribunal [to] judge the soldiers who perpetrated these crimes."
An editorial in another Egyptian newspaper, "Al-Dustour," describes the abuse as an "earthquake that shook the conscience of the world" and said the action was the work of the "orphans of the Ku Klux Klan."
Syria's official daily "Ath-Thawra" says the abuse is "proof that the acts of torture" by U.S. troops are widespread.
A spokesman for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television channel, Jihad Ballout, told RFE/RL that the prevailing reaction in the Arab world is one of shock and anger. At the same time, he says, many Arabs have distrusted the United States for so long that the prisoner abuse does not come as a surprise.
"Reviewing the media, most of which have interviewed people inside Iraq and across the Arab world, there is a sense of people saying, 'Well, why we are surprised, why we are shocked? We should have anticipated that,'" Ballout said.
Ballout said that, even before the photographs came to light, many Arabs believed that Americans had come to Iraq to "humiliate" Iraqis and Arabs generally. The latest developments, Ballout said, only serve as "vindication" of those opinions.
Ballout said that Arabs are most offended by the fact that U.S. soldiers are shown abusing naked prisoners. He says Islam has strict rules about nudity -- to the degree that even married couples are shy about appearing naked in each other's presence.
"Perhaps [most offensive] was the nudity [of the prisoners] and the prisoners being forced to get involved in the practices that are related to sexual behavior, especially between men themselves. I think that has caused the greatest anxiety, the strongest feelings, amongst Arab public opinion in general," Ballout said.
The scandal comes at a time when U.S. policy is increasingly shaky in Iraq and the Middle East.
American troops suffered unprecedented numbers of casualties in April in fighting with Iraqi insurgents.
And U.S. President George W. Bush has come under heated criticism for his support for Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for a unilateral solution to the situation in the occupied territories.
This latest blow may make matters even worse. Ballout echoes the sentiment of the U.S. Senator Joe Biden, saying the abuse scandal marks a low point in U.S. policy in the region.
This is the biggest reversal of the American public policy in the Middle East for the past 10 years."
Politicians from all over the Arab and Muslim world have condemned the U.S. abuse of prisoners.
Amr Musa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, expressed "shock and disgust" at the "shameful images." An Arab League statement decries the abuse as committed by "members of the forces which pretend to defend the liberties and dignity of man."
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi today urged the United States and Britain to take swift and stern measures to prevent any of their soldiers from abusing Iraqi prisoners.
Malaysia chairs the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim organization.
A spokesman from Iran's Foreign Ministry said the United States had replaced Saddam Hussein as the enemy of the Iraqi people.
Afghanistan warned that the abuse could erode Afghan support for U.S. efforts to stabilize their country.
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