Images of abuse will haunt Britain and the US

01 May 2004

If the US-led occupation of Iraq was not already discredited, the shameful images of the abuse of Iraqi detainees by their US guards inside a Baghdad prison will have taken care of it. Nor are the sickening pictures exclusive to US troops.

A clearly shaken General Sir Michael Jackson, the British Chief of General Staff, was last night forced to order an inquiry into allegations in The Daily Mirror that forces under his command had beaten an Iraqi detainee. Even more sickeningly, they had urinated on him, producing a stark photograph that may do more to undermine the case for war at home than anything hitherto has done.

How does this all play in Iraq? As the place where thousands of Saddam's political opponents were tortured and executed, Abu Ghraib jail, where the US abuse occurred, holds iconic status as a symbol of the barbarity that characterised the Baathist regime. So it is doubly distressing that it was here grinning Americans should inflict their degrading treatment on naked Iraqis.

Tony Blair urges us to accept that the actions of a few ­ now facing criminal charges ­ should not tar the reputations of 150,000 Western troops. But the damage already done is incalculable, multiplied by the latest revelations of British activity. These images have inflamed opinion in Iraq, throughout the Middle East and beyond, confirming for many Muslims the view that Americans (and now the British) hold them in contempt.

It should also be remembered that the events might not have taken place if thousands of Iraqis were not in detention, many without charge. The lines of families outside Abu Ghraib remain almost as long as they were during the rule of Saddam.