Accountability Begins at Home

Editorial

New York Times

November 21, 2005

It is hard to think of a more dangerous situation in Iraq right now than to have disenchanted Sunni Arabs believe that the police forces are in the control of Shiite gunmen who can detain and torture Sunnis at will. So the Bush administration made a good start by insisting on an immediate investigation of all Iraqi detention centers after the discovery of what looked like a Shiite militia-run torture chamber in the heart of Baghdad.

Doing that meant brushing aside objections by the Interior Ministry, run by a powerful Shiite leader, and putting a scratch in the thin veneer of Iraqi self-governance. But it is vital to show support for ordinary, law-abiding Sunnis. That vulnerable community has seen enough of its human and political rights trampled by elements of the ruling Shiite coalition. Unless the administration ensures that those rights are fully respected, neither the Dec. 15 elections nor the constitutional revisions that are supposed to follow have much chance of creating any semblance of a unified, democratic Iraq.

Still, it's painful to think of how much easier this would all be if it were not for America's tarnished reputation when it comes to torture. It would be much easier for the Bush administration to counter calls by Sunnis and others outside Iraq for an international investigation. It's deeply distressing (although by now, sadly, not surprising) that the Bush administration remains oblivious to its own failures in this area, and to how much of the moral high ground the United States government lost by refusing to deal honestly with the abuse of prisoners by American forces.

There was a distinctly hollow ring to last week's talk by American officials of a zero-tolerance policy on the abuse of detainees in Iraqi-run prisons. Back at the ranch, Vice President Dick Cheney is still trying to legalize torture at C.I.A. prisons around the world; President Bush is still threatening to veto the entire Pentagon budget if Congress dares to impose actual rules on the handling of prisoners at military detention camps; and the officials behind the policies that led straight from the doctrine of legalized torture to the horrors of Abu Ghraib continue to be promoted, instead of being held accountable.

It took just a few days for the United States to demand a full investigation of Iraqi prisons. Washington immediately recognized that the Iraqi government could not investigate itself alone and assigned the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to help. This same administration, however, has spent the last 18 months obstructing the Senate's inquiries into Abu Ghraib and other aspects of the prison abuse mess, and has used the Republican leadership in Congress to block any outside investigations. It has narrowed the scope of its own inquiries to shield the civilian and military leadership.

We're happy the administration pressed for a full accounting of abuse of Iraqis by Iraqis. Now, about the abuse of Iraqis by Americans ...