WASHINGTON (Reuters)–The abuse of Iraqi prisoners reflected a failure of leadership in the US armed forces–the general who investigated the mistreatment says.
But he said on Tuesday that he found no evidence that American soldiers had acted on the direct orders of higher-ups.
Asked directly in "your own soldier’s language" what had caused the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison–once the feared symbol of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule–US Army Major General Antonio Taguba recited a litany of ills.
"Failure in leadership–sir–from the brigade commander on down–lack of discipline–no training whatsoever and no supervision. Supervisory omission was rampant," Taguba–the author of a Pentagon report on the abuse–told the latest Senate hearing on the scandal–which has drawn worldwide outrage.
But Taguba told the Senate Armed Services Committee he did "not find any evidence of a policy or a direct order given to these soldiers to conduct what they did. I believe that they did it on their own volition."
The hearing followed an all-day grilling of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday–at which Rumsfeld apologized for the abuse but said he would not step down simply to appease his political enemies.
At the Pentagon’s insistence–Under Secretary of Defense Stephen Cambone–who is in charge of intelligence–and other Pentagon officials also appeared with Taguba to testify on the scandal that has sparked international outrage and calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation.
Coalition military intelligence officers estimated that about 70 percent to 90 percent of the thousands of prisoners detained in Iraq had been "arrested by mistake," according to a report by Red Cross given to the Bush administration last year and leaked this week.
The report said the mistreatment of prisoners apparently tolerated by US and other coalition forces in Iraq involved widespread abuse that was "in some cases tantamount to torture."
Democrats on the committee were irked that the Pentagon balked at plans for Taguba to testify by himself–calling it an "attempt to dilute Taguba’s testimony"–a Democratic aide said. "Taguba is known as a straight-talker."
Taguba’s report and photographs shown around the world of naked prisoners stacked in a pyramid or positioned to simulate sex acts at the prison near Baghdad have shocked Americans and set off an international furor that has posed a serious setback to US efforts to stabilize Iraq.
With close US ally Britain battling its own abuse scandal–Amnesty International accused British soldiers in Iraq of killing civilians–including an 8-year-old girl and a wedding guest–who posed no apparent threat.
Already–a British judge has ruled that 12 Iraqi families whose loved ones were killed should be given permission to argue that the European Convention on Human Rights applied to their cases. The scandal broke in America as public support for the Iraq war was already declining.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released on Monday found only 44 percent believed the war was worthwhile. In a poll taken a month ago–50 percent said it was worth going to war in Iraq. A year ago–73 percent thought the war was worthwhile.
President George W. Bush’s own approval rating dipped to 46 percent–down from 52 percent a month earlier.
In Iraq scattered violence–underlined the continuing lawlessness. A civilian supply convoy was attacked on the main highway to Baghdad from Jordan and 21 vehicles were destroyed. Three people were killed when a bomb exploded in a crowded market in the northern oil city of Kirkuk–Iraqi police said.
And in Najaf–hundreds of Iraqis marched through the streets to demand that militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr withdraw his fighters from the Shi’ite holy city.
It was the biggest and most public display yet of mounting local exasperation with an uprising launched last month by Sadr’s Mehdi Army against the US occupation force.
Despite the ongoing turmoil–the United States is planning to hand over Saddam Hussein and other top officials of his ousted regime to the Iraqis before it transfers power to an unelected Iraqi government by June 30–according to Iraqi lawyer Salem Chalabi–who is coordinating the trial.
"The coalition forces now have more than 100 former regime officials," Chalabi said in Kuwait. "They will be transferred to us before the transfer of power–and they include Saddam Hussein–Ali Hassan al Majid and Tareq Aziz."
In his report–completed in March–Taguba cited the "systematic and illegal abuses of detainees," and said between October and December 2003–"numerous incidents of sadistic–blatant–and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees."
While his 53-page report castigated the prison operation–Taguba told the committee he did not see evidence it resulted from a deliberate policy on extracting information from detainees.
"I think it was a matter of soldiers with their interaction with military intelligence personnel who were perceived or thought to be competent authority … influencing their action to set the conditions for successful interrogations," he said.
But Senator Carl Levin of Michigan–the committee’s top Democrat–said "the despicable acts" shown in the report "not only reek of abuse–they reek of an organized effort and methodical preparation for interrogation."
Levin said the abuses "were not the spontaneous action of lower ranking enlisted personnel," but "attempts to extract information from prisoners by abusive and degrading methods were planned and suggested by others."
Congress is now preparing to see a new set of photographs and a video that Rumsfeld warned may be even more shocking.