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Iraq Update

Sewell Chan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; 1:00 PM

Photographs depicting abuse of Iraqi detainees at the hands of U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison have triggered increased scrutiny of the network of U.S. detention centers around the world, apologies from the President, speculation about the future of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, investigations into the roles of military intelligence and civilian contractors in intelligence gathering and outrage in the Muslim world. Tuesday, a video posted on a militant Islamic Web site claims to show the decapitation of American businessman Nick Berg, accompanied by a statement saying Berg died to avenge the suffering of the Iraqi prisoners.

Washington Post foreign correspondent Sewell Chan was online Wednesday, May 12 at 1 p.m. ET live from Baghdad to discuss the latest developments from Iraq -- from the prison abuse investigation to fighting in Sadr City to increased tensions between occupiers and occupied.


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Sewell Chan: Greetings from Baghdad. I only have about 30 to 40 minutes today, but I'll try to get to as many questions as I can.

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New York, N.Y.: What more can you tell us about the story of Nick Berg? Why was he detained by the Iraqi police? Why was he interviewed by the FBI? Is there any evidence, despite the official denials, that he was in fact detained by the U.S.?

Sewell Chan: Not all the facts are clear about the very tragic abduction and death of Nick Berg. As we reported today, he was a 26-year-old independent businessman from Pennsylvania who had come to Iraq hoping to construct, design and repair communications towers. The US today insisted that during his 13-day detention he was under the custody of the Iraqi police, not the US military. But Berg's family has contended, in interviews and in an April 5 lawsuit filed in US District Court in Philadelphia, that he was under military custody. During his detention, Berg was interviewed by the FBI, whose agents determined that he was not linked to any suspicious activities. We do have more details about this very sad case, so please be sure to read tomorrow's paper.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Big fan of yours Sewell.

We read here that U.S. forces are engaging Madhi forces in and around Mosques. Do the Iraqi civilian population know this? If so, how is this news being received?

Sewell Chan: Thanks.

Iraqis receive news these days through many media -- more than 200 newspapers, satellite news channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, and even Internet cafes. (I was at one this afternoon, and every terminal was in use.)

Judging from the Arabic television networks, there's awareness of, and intense interest, in the monthlong standoff between Moqtada Sadr's militia and the US military in Najaf, Karbala and Kufa.

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Las Vegas, Nev.: Is there any reason news outlets never actually publish the names or URLs of any of these al Qaeda Web sites? Are they trying to protect us from horrors and brainwashing, or is there a more legitimate reason? Thank you.

Sewell Chan: In general, I think that URL's are often not published simply because they take up a lot of space. With Internet access and a search engine, it's not difficult to find these Web sites.

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Brussels, Belgium: Hi Sewell Chan, with the way you sense the situation over there right now do you think this form of occupation under a leadership with an infinite bad reputation in the Arab world still stands a chance to ever win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis?

Sewell Chan: I think there has been a lot of soul-searching among the more thoughtful (or candid) US leaders over the past two weeks about the implications of the prison-abuse scandal on America's efforts to "win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis," as you put it. One US general, Maj Gen Martin E. Dempsey, said yesterday that he tries to measure public support by such criteria as whether children wave to his soldiers on the street. Out of a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most positive perception of the US, Dempsey said: "We were probably at a 7 ... I would say we're down to about a 5." I thought it was refreshingly candid.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Mr. Chan -- Some articles have been written about the impact of cutural differences in winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis but very little has been written about the impact of not being able to speak their language. Do you think this was a factor in the prison abuse?

If I were General Abizaid I would find 80,000 soldiers that spoke Arabic to be more valuable than armored Humvees or tanks. Why do you think he hasn't asked for them.

Sewell Chan: I think the US would be quite fortunate if it had 80,000 people of all professions who spoke fluent Arabic and used it for government service. Finding linguists has been a huge challenge for the US, a shortfall made especially apparent since 9/11.

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Harlingen, Tex.:
Do we know the names and official positions of the seven officers and NCOs who were reprimanded in connection with the Abu Ghraib abuses? Also, do we know the specifics of the reprimands and when they were given?

Sewell Chan: The US has declined to release the names or ranks of the seven officers and NCO's who have received notices of administrative sanctions in the Abu Ghraib abuses, unfortunately. It is clear from the Taguba report that probably two of the seven are military intelligence officers. The military has announced that of the seven, six are to receive a general-officer memorandum of reprimand (GOMOR), the highest form of administrative rebuke by the military and often a career-ending move.

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Reading, Mass.: Are the Iraqi generals commanding the Fallujah brigade still wearing Republican Guard uniforms?

When are the joint patrols of Iraqis and Marines going to occur?

Sewell Chan: The first joint patrol of Iraqi ex-soldiers and Marines in Fallujah occurred yesterday. I don't know about the uniforms -- because of supply shortages many members of the new Iraqi security forces have had to pay for their own clothing. Not sure if there's a rule of thumb about using old uniforms. Certainly in many parts of Iraq, it would not be a good PR move.

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Texas: I certainly don't want to criticize the young man who was so cruelly murdered, but I can't help asking this question. Has anybody in a position of authority stopped to think whether it's a good idea to have 26-year-old businessmen wandering around Iraq looking for contracts and Christian missionaries doing freelance "humanatarian" work in a Muslim country under occupation by a Christian one? Who's giving visas to these people?

Sewell Chan: You raise interesting questions. There seem to be competing impulses at play. On the one hand, the State Department has advised US citizens against traveling to Iraq because of the high level of violence, but on the other hand, government agencies have encouraged would-be entrepreneurs and contractors to explore business opportunities here.

US citizens do not need a visa to enter Iraq, to my knowledge.

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Denver, Colo.: Hi Sewell -- You don't have to answer this. I just wanted to say, as a colleague, that you've been doing a spectacular job in Iraq -- clear and compelling stories. I read every word. This is easy, too, because you've had the lead story on page 1 of the Denver Post just about every day for weeks.

-- cheers, Tom Reid (now Rocky Mtn. Bureau of the Post).

Sewell Chan: Thanks Tom. This is very kind of you.

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Jersey City, N.J.: Do you think it will be any safer for U.S. troops or civilian foreigners to be in Iraq after the planned power transfer?

Sewell Chan: That's a great question, and very hard to answer. The interim government that takes over on June 30 will have quite limited authority, so it's an open whether whether Iraqis will perceive it as legitimate. The violence and the insurgency may be linked more to the presence of US military forces than to the political process, and as you know, the US has announced plans to keep as many as 130,000 troops in Iraq through the end of 2005.

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Washington, D.C.: Sewell, your good friends in D.C. are thinking of you and miss you... I was curious whether the U.S. military has considered shutting down Abu Ghraib prison. Given the torture scandal, not to mention the prison's history under Hussein, it's astonishing to me that it's still being used. Seems like that will only further upset and inflame the Iraqi people and others, if that's possible at this point.

Sewell Chan: Thanks, this is an excellent question. Iraqi and international journalists have been asking US officials repeatedly in recent days whether they would consider shutting Abu Ghraib -- as some members of Congress have urged -- but the answer so far seems to be no. The US still holds many detainees, and Maj Gen Geoffrey D Miller, the new commander in charge of detention facilities in Iraq, said recently that he views Abu Ghraib as an effective facility. For many Iraqis the painful legacy of the tortures and executions conducted inside the prison deeply resonates.

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Easton, Md.: Given that we know little about the people involved in Nick Berg's murder, I'm wondering what he could have possibly represented in their eyes. Is it a case of just awful luck, or was there something about him that made him an appealing target for such horrible violence? I wondered the same thing about Daniel Paniel, though I supposed his connection to a major newspaper might have been a factor. Why this poor 26-year-old who didn't seem to be affiliated with anyone?

Sewell Chan: I wish I had answers to these questions. We don't yet know how and when Berg was abducted, or the circumstances that preceded his brutal and horrific death.

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Princeton, N.J.: Today's reporting highlights the tensions between military police and military intelligence. Training has clearly been a problem, and the need to stretch troops, especially the smaller number of military police. While the role of civilian contractors has also been examined, I am interested in the dynamics between MPs or even regular soldiers and the security contractors. Its been surprising to see the huge numbers of security contractors, and their high-profile assignments (protecting Bremer). Security contractors are usually higher paid and tend to get better contracts, how does this work with the soldiers there? What's the hierarchy among security? And are they "governed" by the same rules? Certainly, as we have seen, there is alot of blurring of the rules in practice. I'd be really interested in your take on this.

Sewell Chan: I'm far from an expert, but I would agree that a unique and new aspect of the current Iraq conflict is the privatization of functions that were traditionally the sole domain of the military and the federal government. US officials have told us that security contractors are not supposed to supervise the work of troops and federal employees, but the Taguba report argues they had an inordinate -- and disturbing -- degree of influence in interrogations there. There are also important implications for international law, as you point out, since contractors may not be governed by the same regulations and rules of engagement that have been carefully developed over decades for federal employees and soldiers.

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Nederland, Colo.: What do Iraqis think about Maj. Gen. Miller taking over on April 15, after command all the way up to Rumsfeld knew all about the prison abuses, since "last summer." It was Miller who "urged" creating a "force that 'sets the conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation of internees/detainees'"? Are Iraqis impressed by Miller's fine rhetorical distinctions like "actively" and "in the interrogation booth?" Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: New Head of Prisons Defends Advice, (Post, May 9)

Sewell Chan: I had thought that some of the more subtle Washington-style distinctions would be lost in translation (literally or figuratively) but I have found the Iraqi press has monitored these developments -- particularly the role of military intelligence operatives at the prison -- pretty closely.

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Bethesda, Md.: Have there been any demonstrations outside the Abu Ghraib prison since the pictures went public? Are they allowed, or are things too volatile still to allow public gatherings near there?

Sewell Chan: There was at least one demonstration, involving several hundred protesters, outside Abu Ghraib last week.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you feel safe right now? The media reports lead me to believe that you are in constant and great danger every second of every day. Are there ever peaceful moments?

Sewell Chan: I think the dangers of working here are great, but not unrelenting. Safety in Iraq is always a relative concept.

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Oakton, Va.: Are the Iraqi people impressed by the U.S. government's response, outrage and openess over the abuses at Abu Ghraib? These events aside, do the Iraqi people still have optimism that the U.S. government can put their country back together and lead the country to stability and prosperity?

Sewell Chan: I think the decision to open the court-martials to the public -- and the exceptional decision to hold them at the Baghdad Convention Center, rather than at a military basis -- reflect a clear strategy on the part of the Americans to make the process as open and transparent as possible. The long-term effect on public opinion of the US-led occupation remains to be seen.

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Bala Cynwyd, Pa.: How do our troops react to the Abu Ghraib abuse news?

Sewell Chan: I haven't done as much research on this as I'd like, but so far the vast majority of servicemembers I've talked to have expressed sadness and disgust.

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Washington, D.C.: During yesterday's hearing one of the Senators took issue with the report in The Washington Post about an Iraqi being grabbed by the Americans while in a babershop. The Sen. said Americans don't have the AK-47's that are in the story. (I also don't think Americans wear red and white scarfs on their face.) Does The Post stand by this story? What is the fallout? And if the story is not accurate do think the Publisher or Editor in Chief of the Washington Post should resign? It was only one wrong story and that is enough for some to think Rumsfeld should step down.

Sewell Chan: The Post welcomes letters to the editor. They should be sent to letters@washpost.com.

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Washington, D.C.: Has it been reported whether Berg is Jewish? With Daniel Pearl, the statement he had to read prior to his execution made much of his religion. Or is it a non-issue in this case? Did the Arabic statement make any reference to this? Any anti-Crusader or anti-Jewish rhetoric?

Sewell Chan: Please keep reading The Post...

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Arlington, Va.: Have any humanitarian agencies -- like the Red Cross -- been granted access to check on Saddam Hussein's treatment yet?

Sewell Chan: Yes, the International Committee of the Red Cross has had periodic access to Saddam Hussein.

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Kansas City, Kan.: Al Qaeda claims that the beheading of Nick Berg was in response to mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq by American soldiers, which, according to photographs, mostly consisted of photographing the prisoners in humiliating poses, usually nude. Do you think the reaction of al Queda to this type of mistreatment of Arab prisoners represents the thinking generally of Arabs? If so, can you expound on what that implies for the future of any succesful lasting accord between Middle Eastern Muslims and the rest of the world?

Sewell Chan: I don't think it's accurate to say that the killing of Berg reflects a widespread Arab sentiment about the appropriate response to the Abu Ghraib abuses. Many Iraqis have expressed equal horror at both crimes.

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Washington, D.C.: Sewell -- I've been reading your dispatches and you're doing a fabulous job. Keep up the good work, and be safe.
Best wishes.

Sewell Chan: Who are these kind and anonymous readers? Thank you very much.

I'm afraid I've got to cut out, in order to make my own deadline. Thanks for the great questions and for reading The Washington Post! Best wishes from Baghdad.

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