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Pentagon Was Warned of Abuse Months Ago

U.S. Officials, Rights Groups Sought Changes

By Peter Slevin and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 8, 2004; Page A12

Months before Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld publicly acknowledged the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, top U.S. officials and several international human rights organizations repeatedly warned the Defense Department to halt the mistreatment of detainees.

From U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to investigators for the International Committee of the Red Cross, a broad array of officials pressed the Pentagon to improve conditions or face a likely Iraqi backlash, officials from the government and the organizations said yesterday.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a Capitol Hill hearing on Iraqi prisoner abuse as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld listens. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

Amnesty International sounded an alarm at a Baghdad news conference in May 2003, only one month after the Iraqi capital fell to U.S.-led troops. Three months later, Bremer pressed the military to improve conditions and later made the issue a regular talking point in discussions with Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, said U.S. officials familiar with the discussions, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The Red Cross delivered repeated warnings during the same period, its president said yesterday. The organization dispatched investigators to 14 detention centers in Iraq and delivered graphic reports about U.S. mistreatment, including evidence of humiliation, physical abuse and excessive force.

Rumsfeld, the figure at the epicenter of the crisis, defended his record yesterday under six hours of sharp congressional questioning. He said he saw photographs of mistreatment at Abu Ghraib prison only on Thursday, but asserted that his department had taken appropriate steps to improve conditions and oversight of the jails.

U.S. commanders, Rumsfeld said, handled evidence of abuse by troops at Abu Ghraib "darn well."

Amid calls for Rumsfeld's resignation by a number of Democrats and news organizations, questions are being focused on who in the uniformed military and the civilian leadership of the Bush administration knew about the abuse and what was done to stop it.

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) told Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that he doubts the scenes of persecution photographed at Abu Ghraib "were totally isolated actions."

"I think you'll agree with me that it's not going to be enough just to make scapegoats of six or seven enlisted personnel," Spratt said. "You've got to go up and down the chain of command and outside the chain of command . . . to find out who knew of these practices, condoned these practices, encouraged and gave rise to these practices."

Even before the Iraq war began in March 2003, human rights organizations had begun to focus on harsh U.S. treatment of prisoners detained for secret interrogation in holding camps in such places as Bagram, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, Cuba. When U.S. troops began arresting thousands of Iraqis, international monitors were watching.

Amnesty International said yesterday that its officials warned U.S. and British occupation authorities about mistreatment of detainees as early as May 2003. The next month, the organization wrote Bremer after interviewing former detainees to criticize methods that spokesman Alistair Hodgett said "appear to facilitate cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

In July, Amnesty held another news conference on the issue and met with officials of the occupation authority's legal counsel, Hodgett said. "We've raised it continuously since then," he said.

In August, Bremer became alarmed about the treatment of detainees and prison conditions. After interceding in one detainee's case, he urged the U.S. military in Iraq and top Bush administration officials to improve conditions and avoid potential fallout, according to U.S. officials.

The most comprehensive evaluation of Iraqi jails was conducted by the Red Cross, which began dispatching staff members by March 31, less than two weeks after the war started. In the next six months, the Geneva-based organization paid 29 visits to 14 detention centers, delivering oral and written reports to U.S. officials in Iraq after each visit.

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