This torture and abuse of prisoners has caused incalculable damage

06 May 2004

How very far the United States has fallen short of the values and ideals that President Bush promised his country would bring to Iraq. With one inquiry complete and dozens more in progress, the US authorities now admit that 25 prisoners have died in their custody in Afghanistan and Iraq and many more have been abused. So far, one man, a US serviceman, has been court-martialled and discharged. A second, a civilian, is under criminal investigation. The vast majority of allegations, proven and pending, relate to the very same prison, Abu Ghraib, that was notorious for the torture and ill-treatment of inmates in the time of Saddam Hussein.

Yesterday, Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world heard a torrent of American apologies. The commander of US-run prisons in Iraq apologised for "illegal or unauthorised acts" committed by soldiers at Abu Ghraib. The spokesman for the US command in Iraq spoke of his, and the armed forces', "embarrassment and shame". The Defence Secretary, the National Security Adviser, the Secretary of State, all offered their own public regrets. By nightfall, the Commander in Chief, President George Bush, had given two interviews to Arab television channels, pledging that those responsible for the "abhorrent" conduct would be brought to justice. Such, he said, was the democratic way.

Not only Iraqis may be forgiven for a certain scepticism in this regard. However small a number of servicemen and women may be involved in the excesses now coming slowly to light, however uncharacteristic such ill-treatment may be of the US armed forces as a whole, the suspicion must be that it is not confined to Abu Ghraib, but extends to other military prisons, including Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay.

US officials insist that the abuse of prisoners in their custody is not only unacceptable, but un-American. Mr Bush said, almost desperately, that the people of Iraq "must understand that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know". He must surely understand, however, that the profound difficulty, and disgrace, for the United States is that what took place at Abu Ghraib represents an America that more and more Iraqis must feel they know all too well: a reckless, gun-toting hyperpower that marched into their country and set up a prison which - as US officials now admit - was out of control. A still more frightening thought is that perhaps it was not quite as out of control as the officials now contend.

The abuse of prisoners, whether they enjoy official PoW status or not, is hardly without precedent. This is a regrettable aspect of war. Nor - whatever the verdict on the photographs published in the Daily Mirror - has Britain any right to be sanctimonious. Investigations are in progress into the conduct of some British troops in Iraq - investigations unrelated to what the photographs may or may not show. It is also pertinent to recall the findings of successive inquiries into the treatment of Irish Republican suspects by the British military and police when the troubles in Northern Ireland were at their height.

Yet there are two respects in which the war in Iraq sets precedents. First, in the number of private civilian contractors engaged to perform functions that would in the past have been performed by military personnel, subject to military discipline. Of the two individuals investigated for murder, one is a civilian engaged by the CIA. What safeguards, what standards of discipline, apply to those whose paymaster is not their country?

Second, in waging his "pre-emptive" war on Iraq, President Bush made much of what he said was the mission to bring freedom and democracy to a downtrodden people. He held out the hope of Iraq as a beacon for the whole Arab world. In waging a war of choice in the name of such elevated ideals, the United States was obliged to exemplify those ideals without blemish. It has failed, and the damage is incalculable.