It is not enough to be sorry. America must act, Rumsfeld must go

09 May 2004

"The wrongdoers will be brought to justice," promised George Bush as the world looked on in horror at the humiliation of America. But responsibility for the systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners does not stop with Lynndie England, the elfin face in photographs that have dominated the world's media. Nor does it stop with Charles Graner, her more obviously sinister boyfriend, who instigated the images. These were not the isolated actions of a deluded couple; they are only the most striking and shocking images so far published of the rotten underbelly of an occupation lacking confidence in its moral purpose.

As Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday, "These events occurred on my watch; as Secretary of Defence, I am accountable for them." Yes, he should be, but no, he was not. He could not even answer simple questions from Senator John McCain about the nature of the instructions to the governor of Abu Ghraib prison. Still less could he answer for his indirect culpability in creating the culture in which torture and abuse could thrive and be concealed for so long.

Many of those who justified the invasion of Iraq thought its opponents went too far when they warned that the rhetoric of a "war" against terrorism and the extra-legal status of Guantanamo Bay undermined the moral case for the occupation of Iraq. They must be less sure now.

Who can say that the whole apparatus of US power, from England and Graner upwards, was not infected by the conviction that the normal rules did not apply in "taking the fight to the enemy" after 11 September 2001? Formally, US forces in Iraq are bound by the rules of international law and have no doubt been told so in writing. But how could they not be influenced by the withering scorn poured on the idea that the detainees in Camp Delta were entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention? How could they not be influenced by the fact that the invasion of Iraq was billed, whether directly or indirectly, as a response to the attack on the twin towers?

When The Independent on Sunday said the failure to adhere to the highest standards of international law undermined the claim to be promoting human rights in Iraq, we did not expect to be so graphically vindicated. Now, the claim to moral superiority rings more emptily than ever. "I believe we have a responsibility to promote freedom that is as solemn as the responsibility is to protecting the American people, because the two go hand in hand," declared Mr Bush in December.

No wonder his apology sounded hollow. At what the White House calls a press availability with King Abdullah II of Jordan, he said: "I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners." This was a good example of the "third-person passive once removed", a phrase once used by his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who is increasingly distancing himself from the Iraq catastrophe.

Tony Blair's government has reacted with propriety in instantly condemning alleged abuse that appears in photographs, although the Government needs to clear the air about how much ministers knew - and when - following reports of abuse from the Red Cross. In any event, Mr Blair's complicity in this illegal, indefensible and, above all, immoral adventure is inescapable. There can be no assurance that British soldiers have generally treated Iraqi prisoners better than US ones, only that there are more photographs of US abuse. It was in January that this newspaper broke the story of Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist kicked to death in custody, yet there have been no charges.

But it was long, long before then that Mr Blair and Mr Bush should have known that there was a problem in the coalition's jails in Iraq. The US and British authorities were warned about the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by Amnesty International as early as May last year.

This could be recorded in history as the moment America lost the war in Iraq. If, as the evidence of past abuse continues to mount, Mr Bush is to recover even a vestige of the coalition's moral authority in Iraq, he must bring Mr Rumsfeld to a more telling understanding of accountability - by sacking him. Beyond that, however, he needs to accelerate the US withdrawal. If morality does not work, electoral calculation might. And the opinion polls in Iraq are just as important as those in Ohio. Even before the US photographs emerged on 28 April, a poll suggested that 57 per cent of Iraqis wanted US/British forces to "leave immediately", that is, in the "next few months". Mr Bush has no choice but to beg Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, to assume more responsibility for security after the 30 June handover to an Iraqi administration. As the price of UN help, Mr Annan must insist that Mr Bush accepts that the US is bound by the rule of international law.