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Inside Abu Ghraib, where souls cracked

February 22, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ABU Ghraib prison should have been a symbol of the kind of brutality by Saddam Hussein that the U.S. was determined to end by invading Iraq and toppling the dictator in 2003.

For decades, Hussein stuffed thousands of political prisoners into fetid, overcrowded cells. Most were left to rot; others were executed and buried in mass graves. Second only to the secret police headquarters in Baghdad, Abu Ghraib was the most feared place in Iraq.

But nearly four years after the invasion, Abu Ghraib stands in much of the Western media and all the Arab media as a sign not of a deposed despot's cruelty but of American mismanagement of the war and a willingness by the Bush administration to condone torture and degradation.

As the U.S. continues to wage a frustrating, piecemeal campaign of counter-insurgency, the loss of the moral high ground at Abu Ghraib stands as its biggest setback.

"Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," by documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, airing at 9:30 tonight on HBO, tries to unravel the story of how the American military, sworn to uphold the Geneva Convention, came to use humiliation and brutality in an unsuccessful attempt to extract information from prisoners.

The frame of "Ghosts" is well known: too few troops assigned to guard too many prisoners, a confusion about who was in charge (the Army? the CIA? private interrogators?), a lack of leadership, a weird atmosphere of sexual sadism, etc.

The principal thesis of "Ghosts" has been kicked around before: that Abu Ghraib was not the work of just a few rogue Army reservists but rather the end product of a permissive attitude toward torture fostered by the White House and then Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. You either buy it or you don't.

While the Abu Ghraib story is not new, "Ghosts" adds significantly to public knowledge by showing the pictures that newspapers only hint at and by interviewing soldiers and prisoners.

The soldiers talk of a morally corrosive atmosphere in which prisoners were forced to crawl naked on filthy floors or were trussed up in painful poses. "That place turned me into a monster," says ex-soldier Javal Davis, who was sentenced to six months in jail for his minor role.

Through translators, former prisoners remember how they could hear the screams of other prisoners. "We listened as his soul cracked," one says.

A bit more reporting would have helped. Would that "Ghosts" had one or more military prosecutors to explain the 10-year sentence meted out to Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr. and the three-year sentence to Pfc. Lynndie England.

"Ghosts" suggests no one was charged in the one death at Abu Ghraib that was listed as a homicide. Actually, several Navy SEALs were charged, including a lieutenant acquitted at a high-profile court-martial.

Toward the end, there's a throwaway line that provides context. "If there were no photographs, there would be no Abu Ghraib," Davis says. No wonder Hussein didn't allow cameras.


Perry has just returned from his fourth reporting trip to Iraq, including a visit to Abu Ghraib, now deserted and guarded by the U.S. to prevent looting.


`Ghosts of Abu Ghraib'

Where: HBO

When: 9:30 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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