Prisoner Abuse Scandal in Iraq Hits U.S. Troops on Front Line
Disclosures Compound Struggle Against Increased Resistance
By Daniel Williams and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 15, 2004; Page A15
BAGHDAD, May 14 -- At Spec. Jesse Haggart's base, the photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison have been flashing across the screens of the chow hall's two televisions in a seemingly endless loop.
But, a few miles away, in the swirling dust and heat of a checkpoint he was monitoring , those images fade in the face of constant deadly threat. Every few days, Haggart's platoon is fired on by hidden enemies.
"We're out here working our rears off every day, and most people embrace us," said Haggart, a pale 21-year-old from Vancouver, Wash. But, he said, the uproar over prisoner abuse "has tarnished that."
At Haggart's outpost and in other troubled areas in Iraq, soldiers are facing new hostilities as they struggle to pacify the country six weeks before the United States hands over limited political authority to an interim Iraqi government. Disclosure of prisoner abuse has further complicated life for front-line soldiers, mostly by giving resistance leaders a new rallying point against the occupation.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld traveled here Thursday to bolster American forces in the face of the scandal, which has cast a shadow over U.S. operations in Iraq during some of its most difficult moments. U.S. officials released 300 Iraqi prisoners Friday in an effort to reduce the prison population after the scandal.
In interviews after the photos were published, troops serving in Baghdad expressed deep frustration. But while the scandal poses an image problem, the soldiers said, the deteriorating security situation and the halting progress of their nation-building chores pose a far greater threat to U.S. success in Iraq.
Most said the photos have not undermined their relationship with Iraqis. But they worried that a group described by one sergeant as "a few stupid privates" has tainted the collective mission in the eyes of the world, including an American public bombarded with the images in the news media.
"We just hope we're all not judged by the actions of a few," said Staff Sgt. John Wayne Thomas. "I think most Americans know we're here doing a job. The Iraqis were hitting at us before any of that came out."
Haggart had never left the United States before volunteering for the Oregon National Guard last year after hearing it would deploy to Iraq within months. "I wanted to be a part of history," he said.
The unit, mostly men from Oregon's lush Willamette River Valley, is attached to the army's 1st Cavalry Division that operates in Baghdad. His platoon arrived in March for a one-year stay.
Haggart and his platoon mates watched over a checkpoint Thursday in the Karrada section of Baghdad, separated by a thin strip of scrub from the Tigris River. Fine dust swirled suspended in the hot wind, casting the city in a misty light.
"We need to stop publicizing this so much," he said of the prison scandal. "Now we have the beheading of a civilian in retaliation for it. This abuse was a terrible thing and it needs to be punished, and someone will be turning big rocks into small ones in Leavenworth for a long time. But we need to get back to our mission."
Across town at the turbulent Sadr City slum in eastern Baghdad, soldiers echoed Haggart's concerns. "It's hard to see how there was such a breakdown," said Lt. Mike Beckner, the platoon leader. "Where was the chain of command? It's a scar on the whole military."
The conversations, however, quickly turned to challenges the troops face every day on the street. Heavy fighting in the neighborhood, once receptive to the American occupation, began before the reports of abuse, continued sporadically over the past the month and erupted again this week.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company