The 'good guys' who can do no wrong

Robert Fisk, who first reported incidents of British brutality against Iraqi prisoners in January, says we should be appalled but not surprised by the latest evidence

02 May 2004

Why are we surprised at their racism, their brutality, their sheer callousness towards Arabs? Those American soldiers in Saddam's old prison at Abu Ghraib, those young British squaddies in Basra came - as soldiers often come - from towns and cities where race hatred has a home: Tennessee and Lancashire.

How many of "our" lads are ex-jailbirds themselves? How many support the British National Party? Muslims, Arabs, "cloth heads", "rag heads", "terrorists", "evil". You can see how the semantics break down.

Add to that the poisonous, racial dribble of a hundred Hollywood movies that depict Arabs as dirty, lecherous, untrustworthy and violent people - and soldiers are addicted to movies - and it's not difficult to see how some British scumbag will urinate into the face of a hooded man, how some American sadist will stand a hooded Iraqi on a box with wires tied to his hands.

The sexual sadism - the bobby-sox girl soldier who points at a man's genitals, the mock orgy in Abu Ghraib prison, the British rifle in the prisoner's mouth - might be a crazed attempt to balance all those lies about the Arab world, about the desert warrior's potency, the harem, polygamy.

Even today, we still show the revolting Ashanti on our television stations, a feature film about the kidnapping of the wife of an English doctor by Arab slave-traders, which depicts Arabs as almost exclusively child-molesters, rapists, murderers, liars and thieves. It stars - heaven spare us - Michael Caine, Omar Sharif and Peter Ustinov and was made partly in Israel.

Indeed, we now depict Arabs in our films as the Nazis once depicted Jews. But Arabs are fair game. Potential terrorists to a man - and a woman - they must be softened up, "prepared", humiliated, beaten, tortured. The Israelis use torture in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. Now we torture in Saddam's old jail outside Baghdad and - for this is where British soldiers beat a young Iraqi to death last summer - in the former office of Saddam's most murderous chemical warfare fascist, the awful "Chemical" Ali.

And the officers? Didn't the British lieutenants and captains and majors in the Queen's Lancashire Regiment know that their lads were kicking to death a young Iraqi hotel worker last summer?

That man's fate - and the documentary evidence proving that he was murdered - was first revealed by The Independent on Sunday in January. Didn't the CIA boys at Abu Ghraib know that Ivan "Chip" Frederick and Lynddie England, two of the American soldiers in the photographs published last week, were obscenely humiliating their prisoners?

Of course they did. The last time I saw Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade in Iraq, she told me she had visited Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo and found nothing wrong with it. I should have guessed then that something had gone terribly wrong in Iraq.

I remember how in Basra, on the eve of a visit by Tony Blair, I visited the British Army's press office in the city to ask about the death of 26-year-old Baha Mousa. The dead man's family had given me British documents proving that he had been beaten to death in custody, that the British Army had itself tried to pay off the family if they would give up any legal claim against the soldiers who so cruelly killed their son.

I was met with yawns and a total inability to furnish information about the event. I was told to call the Ministry of Defence in London. The officer I spoke to appeared weary, even impatient about my inquiry. There was not a single word of compassion for the dead man.

Back in September last year, General Karpinski was with a small group of journalists in Abu Ghraib - the same ghastly prison in which thousands were put to death by Saddam, the same jail in which Frederick and England and their American buddies were standing their hooded Iraqi prisoner on a box with supposed electrodes on his hands - and General Karpinski took some delight in escorting us to the old Saddam execution chamber.

She led the way into the concrete room with its raised dais and gallows, and - in front of us all - triumphantly pulled the gallows lever so that the trap door clanged down. She urged us to read the last messages scrawled on the walls of the neighbouring death row by Iraqis awaiting Saddam's vengeance. But there was something wrong about her prison tour.

There was no clear judicial process for the prisoners and there was no mention - until I brought it up - of the mortar attack on the American-held jail which killed six of the inmates in their tents in August, when General Karpinski was already in command of Iraq's 8,000 prisoners. They had been given "counselling", she told us. "They seemed to think we had been using them as some kind of sand-bag." Abu Ghraib was then being attacked by insurgents four out of every seven nights. Now it is attacked twice every night.

Oddly, she claimed in answer to a question of mine that there were "six prisoners claiming to be American and two claiming to be from the UK". But when General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior Iraqi officer in Iraq, later denied this, no one asked how the confusion had arisen. Was General Karpinski making it up? Or was General Sanchez not telling us the truth? Prisoners' names were often confused, Arabic script was mis-transliterated, men went "missing" from the files. It spoke of a whole culture in which Iraqis - especially Iraqi prisoners - were somehow not worthy of the same rights as us Westerners; which is why, I suppose, the occupying powers in Iraq always give us the statistics of Westerners' deaths but care not the slightest to discover the statistics of the deaths of Iraqis, the very people they are mandated to protect and care for.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a young American soldier off Saadoun Street in the centre of Baghdad. He was giving sweets to street kids and mimicking the Arabic for "thank you": sukran. Did he know Arabic, I innocently asked. He grinned at me. "I know how to shout at them," he said. And there you have it.

We are all victims of our high-flown morality. "They" - the Arabs, Muslims, "cloth heads", "rag heads", "terrorists" - are of a lesser breed, of lower moral standards. They are people to be shouted at. They have to be "liberated" and given "democracy". But we little band of brothers, we dress ourselves up in the uniforms of righteousness. We are marines or military police or a Queen's regiment and we are on the side of good. "They" are on the side of "evil". So we can do no wrong.

Or so it appeared until those shameful pictures last week tore apart the whole bandwagon and proved that race hatred and prejudice is an old historical inheritance of ours. We used to call Saddam the Hitler of Iraq. But wasn't Hitler one of "us", a Westerner, a citizen of "our" culture? If he could kill six million Jews, which he did, why should we be surprised that "we" can treat Iraqis like animals? Last week came the photographs to prove we can.