Alleged U.S. Misconduct Adds to Iraqi Woes

By HAMZA HENDAWI
The Associated Press
Sunday, June 4, 2006; 2:10 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Allegations of misconduct by U.S. troops add a new ingredient to Iraq's already combustible mix of violence, sectarian tensions and discontent over shortages of electricity, gasoline and water.

A cartoon published Sunday in the Baghdad newspaper al-Mutammar illustrated the exasperation growing among Iraqis, many of whom had hoped to be enjoying a better life after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

The drawing shows a man on a hospital bed, his right leg in a cast marked "terrorism" and his left arm in a cast marked "American violations." A patchwork blanket bears the word "utilities." The patient's head and nose are bandaged and he has a black eye.

But he smiles and holds up the V-for-victory sign with his right hand. "The price of freedom," reads the caption.

While undermining popular support for the U.S. military presence, charges that American troops may have purposely killed unarmed civilians also are giving insurgents a boost, possibly bigger than the scandal over the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison.

"Can anyone blame Iraqis for joining the resistance now?" said Mustafa al-Ani, an Iraqi analyst living in Dubai. "The resistance and the terrorists alike are feeding off the misbehavior of the American soldiers."

The alleged misconduct involves a November incident in Haditha that resulted in the deaths of up to 24 Iraqis, including women and children, and a killing in a second town. U.S. authorities cleared U.S. troops in a third case, the deaths of up to 13 people north of Baghdad.

Many Iraqis insist the cases represent only a fraction of wrongful killings by U.S. troops since the 2003 invasion, and complain of what they think is the low regard Americans have for Iraqi lives and culture.

Such sentiments produce supporters for the insurgents, most of whom are Sunni Arabs, like most victims of alleged wrongful killings.

The portrayal of Americans as brutal occupiers who are the root of all Iraq's problems has along been a key component in propaganda from insurgents and their sympathizers, and the latest charges feed the perception of U.S. troops as trigger-happy and insensitive.

For the Americans, the negative image makes it more difficult to overcome their language and cultural isolation, complicating the effort to win over Iraqis _ or to glean intelligence in areas where the insurgents are most active.

In 2004, photographs showing Iraqis held at Abu Ghraib prison being sexually humiliated or forced to assume painful positions caused an uproar in Iraq. The scandal had its strongest impact on the Sunni Arab community, a minority that dominated Iraq during Saddam's rule. Nearly all the thousands of Iraqis held at U.S.-run prisons are Sunnis.

Hassan Bazaz, a Baghdad University political scientist and the head of an independent research center, said the strong interest now being shown by Western news media in the alleged U.S. misconduct is only catching up with views in Iraq.

"There is nothing new or surprising for Iraqis," said Bazaz, who is from a prominent Sunni Arab family. "The problem is that the outside world has been isolated from what happens on the ground in Iraq. What the media says now is only a fraction of what happens every day."

Iraq's majority Shiites, oppressed during decades of Sunni Arab domination, benefited the most from Saddam's ouster and replaced the Sunnis as Iraq's most powerful group.

Embittered Sunni Arabs are convinced the Americans and Shiites are in the same corner, sharing a mutual desire to hurt Sunnis. Allegations of targeted killings, torture and arbitrary detention of Sunnis by Iraq's U.S.-trained, Shiite-dominated security forces strengthen that feeling.

Sunni Arab leaders, including mainstream ones participating in Iraq's political process, have sought to make political capital from the allegations against U.S. troops.

"I suggest that the Americans should confess their big failure in Iraq and apologize to the Iraqis," said Salih Al-Mutlak, who leads one of two Sunni Arab political blocs in parliament.

The issue hasn't just caused anger in the Sunni community, however. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has been among the harshest critics of the alleged misconduct and says his government will pursue its own investigation into the Haditha deaths.

Still, many Sunnis express skepticism about al-Maliki's sincerity.

"He wants to let the Americans know that he is strong and tell the Sunni Arabs that he is there for them, too," said Bazaz, the professor. "It's clever, but it will not come to anything."

© 2006 The Associated Press