<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

IV. Iraq: Applying Counter-Terrorism Tactics during a Military Occupation

The United States, as an Occupying Power in Iraq under the Geneva Conventions, may deprive civilians in Iraq of their liberty in only two situations: for “imperative reasons of security,” or for prosecution.67 Since President Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq in May 2003, more than 12,000 Iraqis have been taken into custody by U.S. forces and detained for weeks or months. Until very recently, the U.S. has failed to ensure that so-called security detainees received a proper review of their cases as is required under the Geneva Conventions.68 In its February 2004 report to Coalition forces, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that military intelligence officers told the ICRC that 70 to 90 percent of those in custody in Iraq last year had been arrested by mistake.69

The U.S.’s treatment of detainees in Iraq was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning of the occupation. What is clear is that abusive treatment used after September 11 on suspects in the “war on terror” came to be considered permissible as well in an armed conflict to suppress resistance to a military occupation. Procedures used in Afghanistan and Guantánamo were imported to Iraq, including the use of “stress and duress” tactics and the use of prison guards to set the conditions for the interrogation of detainees.70

In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, information has come to light which suggests that harsh and coercive interrogation techniques such as subjecting detainees to painful stress positions and extended sleep deprivation have been routinely used in detention centers throughout Iraq. Department of Defense officials said that military intelligence “Human Exploitation Teams” regularly used so called “50/10 tactics”: 50 minutes in sun with a bag over the head in stressful positions followed by 10 minutes of rest.71

In its February 2004 report, the ICRC found that “methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information” (emphasis added). The methods cited by the ICRC included:

  • hooding to disorient and prevent detainees from breathing freely
  • being forced to remain for prolonged periods in painful stress positions
  • being attached repeatedly over several days, for several hours each time to the bars of cell doors naked or in positions causing physical pain
  • being held naked in dark cells for several days and paraded naked, sometimes hooded or with women’s underwear over their heads
  • sleep, food, and water deprivation
  • prolonged exposure while hooded to the sun during the hottest time of day

The classified investigative military report of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba confirmed these findings. Taguba reported that “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” were inflicted on several detainees. His catalogue was even longer than the ICRC’s:

  • Punching, slapping and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;
  • Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees;
  • Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing;
  • Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped;
  • Arranging naked detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;
  • Positioning a naked detainee on a box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes and penis to simulate electric torture;
  • Writing “I am a Rapist” (sic) on the leg of a detainee alleged to have forcibly raped a 15-year-old fellow detainee, and then photographing him naked;
  • Placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee’s neck and having a female soldier pose with him for a picture;
  • A male military police guard having sex with a female detainee;72
  • Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees;
  • Threatening detainees with a loaded 9-mm pistol;
  • Pouring cold water on naked detainees;
  • Beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair;
  • Threatening male detainees with rape;
  • Allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell;
  • Sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick;
  • Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee;
  • Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time;
  • Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear;
  • Taking pictures of dead Iraqi detainees.73

There is additional evidence that interrogation methods in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law were commonplace in Iraq. According to a transcript obtained by the New York Times, Col. Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, told Maj. General Antonio Taguba that intelligence officers sometimes instructed military police to strip detainees naked and to shackle them in preparation for interrogation when there was a “good reason” to do so. Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, the former top military police commander in Abu Ghraib, said in a written statement that military interrogators routinely used sleep deprivation and other forms of psychological intimidation to elicit information from prisoners. "The purpose of that wing of the prison was to isolate prisoners with intelligence, so that they would provide it during MI [military intelligence] interrogations,” Phillabaum said.74 The Reuters news agency reported that three of its Iraqi employees were detained near Fallujah in January 2004 and subjected to sleep deprivation with bags over their heads, forced to remain stress positions for long periods, and beaten. A summary of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division’s investigation provided to Reuters conceded that the detainees were “purposefully and carefully put under stress, to include sleep deprivation, in order to facilitate interrogation.”75

Cases under Investigation

From the earliest days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the U.S. government has been aware of allegations of abuses, including the death of some 30 persons in detention. Yet soldiers accused of abuse have – until after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke – escaped judicial punishment.76 Several cases are still being investigated as possible homicides. To date, no one has been criminally charged in any of the cases.

Among the cases:

Camp Bucca

In one case dating from the first days of the occupation, three Army reserve MPs allegedly beat prisoners and encouraged others to do so at Camp Bucca in the southern city of Um Qasr on May 12, 2003. The commanding officer at Camp Bucca was Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, later implicated in the Abu Ghraib abuses. Charges were brought against the military police but were ended with only their demotion and discharge. In his report, Maj. Gen. Taguba noted that “Following the abuse of several detainees at Camp Bucca in May 2003, I could find no evidence that BG [Brig. Gen.] Karpinski ever directed corrective training for her soldiers or ensured that MP Soldiers throughout Iraq clearly understood the requirements of the Geneva Conventions relating to the treatment of detainees.”

Abed Hamed Mowhoush

Captured in October 2003, the former chief of Iraqi air defenses, Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, died November 26, 2003, at a detention facility at Al Qaim. The Pentagon first released a death certificate reporting that Mowhoush had died “of natural causes” -- a news release added that “he did not feel well and subsequently lost consciousness.” But following a report in the Denver Post77 after the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted, the Pentagon acknowledged that, according to an autopsy report, Mowhoush died of “asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression” showing “evidence of blunt force trauma to the chest and legs” and said that a homicide investigation was underway. Reportedly, Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer and another officer slid a sleeping bag over Mowhoush’s head and rolled him over and over while asking questions. Welshofer is accused of sitting on Mowhoush’s chest and placing his hands over his mouth. According to the investigative summary, “approximately 24 to 48 hours prior to (Mowhoush’s death), Mowhoush was questioned by ‘other governmental agency officials,’ [i.e. the CIA] and statements suggest that he was beaten during that interrogation.”78

Karim ‘Abd al-Jalil

 Aformer lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi army, Kareem ‘Abd al-Jalil died on January 9, 2004, at Forward Operating Base Rifles near al-Asad where he was being interrogated by Special Forces since January 4. The original death certificate stated that he died of “natural causes… during his sleep.” But pictures taken by ‘Abd al-Jalil’s cousin of his body before burial seem to depict severe bruises on his abdomen as well as marks and cuts on his arms and legs, especially around the wrists. Spiegel TV, a German news organization, interviewed another detainee held with ‘Abd al-Jalil who stated that during interrogation, American soldiers “would kick him [‘Abd al-Jalil] a lot, cuff his hands and place them behind his neck. And they would also cuff his feet, then one of them would hold his feet up while the other pulled down his head. They tossed him on his back and stepped on him. They danced on his belly and poured cold water all over him.”79 A Pentagon memo obtained by the Denver Post and reported by NBC says ‘Abd al-Jalil was held in isolation, his hands tied to a pipe that ran along the ceiling. When he was untied, he attacked his interrogators and later tried to escape. When recaptured, his hands were tied to the top of his cell door and his mouth gagged.80 Five minutes later, a guard noticed ‘Abd al-Jalil dead, hanging by his shackles. After these revelations, the Pentagon released another certificate calling ‘Abd al-Jalil’s death a homicide from “blunt force injuries and asphyxia.”81 The Pentagon also said those who interrogated him included members of an elite special forces unit, some of the most highly trained personnel in the U.S. military.82

Nagm Sadoon Hatab

Former Baath Party official Nagm Sadoon Hatabwas found dead at Camp Whitehorse detention facility near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on June 6, 2003.83 The autopsy record said he died from “strangulation.” Military records state that Hatab was asphyxiated when a Marine guard grabbed his throat in an attempt to move him, accidentally breaking a bone that cut off his air supply. Another Marine is charged with kicking Hatab in the chest in the hours before his death - several of his ribs were broken.84 Hatab was also covered with feces and left under the sun for hours. The Marines believed Hatab had taken part in the ambush of Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s unit and reportedly were instituting some form of vigilante justice. Eight Marines were initially charged with various offenses related to Hatab’s death; six later had the charges dropped or reduced to administrative punishment. The two men to be tried are Maj. Clarke Paulus, who commanded Camp Whitehorse when Hatab died, and Sgt. Gary Pittman, who was a guard there. They will be tried at Camp Pendleton in August and September 2004, respectively.85

Reports of Abuse Ignored

Prior to the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos, the U.S. government had multiple opportunities to take all necessary action to address what officials should have recognized was a serious and widespread problem. In fact, the ICRC report states that it alerted U.S. authorities to abuses orally and in writing throughout 2003. In May 2003, the ICRC sent a memorandum based on over 200 allegations of ill-treatment of prisoners of war during capture and interrogation at collecting points, battle group stations and temporary holding areas. That same month, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello raised concerns about the treatment of detainees with the Coalition Administrator, Ambassador Paul Bremer.86  In early July 2003, the ICRC presented a paper detailing approximately 50 allegations of ill-treatment in the military intelligence section of Camp Cropper, at Baghdad International Airport.

According to the ICRC these incidents included:

 “a combination of petty and deliberate acts of violence aimed at securing the co-operation of the persons deprived of their liberty with their interrogators; threats (to intern individuals indefinitely, to arrest other family members,87 to transfer individuals to Guantánamo) against persons deprived of their liberty or against members of their families (in particular wives and daughters); hooding; tight handcuffing; use of stress positions (kneeling, squatting, standing with arms raised aver the head) for three or four hours; taking aim at individuals with rifles, striking them with rifle butts, slaps, punches, prolonged exposure to the sun, and isolation in dark cells. ICRC delegates witnessed marks on the bodies of several persons deprived of their liberty consistent with their allegations.”

In one case, a detainee:

“alleged that he had been hooded and cuffed with flexi-cuffs, threatened to be tortured and killed, urinated on, kicked in the head, lower back and groin, force-fed a baseball which was tied into the mouth using a scarf and deprived of sleep for four consecutive days. Interrogators would allegedly take turns ill-treating him. When he said he would complain to the ICRC he was allegedly beaten more. An ICRC medical examination revealed haematoma in the lower back, blood in urine, sensory loss in the right hand due to tight handcuffing with flexi-cuffs, and a broken rib.”

During a visit to Abu Ghraib prison in October 2003, ICRC delegates witnessed “the practice of keeping persons deprived of their liberty completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness,” the report said. “Upon witnessing such cases, the ICRC interrupted its visits and requested an explanation from the authorities. The military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was ‘part of the process.’”88

Rather than responding to these warning signals, however, according to one senior U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq, Army officials responded to the report of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison by trying to curtail the ICRC’s spot inspections, insisting that the ICRC should make appointments before visiting the cellblock.89

Guantánamo meets Afghanistan at Abu Ghraib

In August 2003, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, through his top intelligence aide, Stephen A. Cambone, sent Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who oversaw the interrogation efforts at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to, in the words of Maj. Gen. Taguba, “review current Iraqi Theater ability to rapidly exploit internees for actionable intelligence.”90 Miller was tasked in essence with “Gitmo-izing” interrogation practices in Iraq, although the Bush administration recognizes that the Geneva Conventions are “fully applicable” in Iraq91 while it has said that they do not cover al-Qaeda detainees Guantánamo.92

As Taguba highlighted in his report, Miller recommended that “the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.”93 There is little clarity regarding what else Miller recommended.94

On October 12, Sanchez implemented Miller’s proposals, issuing a classified memorandum calling for interrogators at Abu Ghraib to work with military police guards to  “manipulate an internee's emotions and weaknesses” and to assume control over the  “lighting, heating . . . food, clothing, and shelter” of those they were questioning.95 The full contents of the Sanchez memo have not been made public.

In addition, between three and five interrogation teams were sent in October from Guantánamo to the American command in Iraq ' “for use in the interrogation effort”' at Abu Ghraib.96

Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, who oversaw interrogations at the Bagram detention center in Afghanistan where two prisoners died, apparently prepared the document titled “Interrogation Rules of Engagement” that was posted at Abu Ghraib. According to the document, certain interrogation methods could be undertaken, but only if the “CG’s” (Sanchez’s) approval was sought and obtained in writing. Depending on their actual application, these methods would violate the Geneva Conventions prohibitions against abusive and coercive treatment of detainees. They included:

  • Change of scenery down (moving to a more barren cell)
  • Dietary manipulation
  • Environmental manipulation
  • Sleep adjustment (reverse schedule)
  • Isolation for longer than 30 days
  • Presence of military working dogs
  • Sleep management (72 hours maximum)
  • Sensory deprivation (72 hours maximum)
  • Stress positions (no longer than 45 minutes)

The document also cautions that detainees “will NEVER be touched in a malicious or unwanted manner” and that the Geneva Conventions apply in Iraq.

Even though his title appears on the document, which also carried the logo of Combined Joint Task Force-7, the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq, General Sanchez denies having seen or approved the rules of engagement posted at Abu Ghraib (although he acknowledged that in twenty-five separate instances, he approved holding Iraqi prisoners in isolation for longer than thirty days, one of the methods listed in the posted rules). Keith B. Alexander, the head of the Army intelligence, however, said that they were the approved policy for interrogations of detainees in Iraq.97

What is clear is that U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib felt empowered to abuse the detainees. The brazenness with which the soldiers at the center of the scandal conducted themselves, snapping photographs and flashing the “thumbs-up” sign as they abused prisoners, suggests they felt they had nothing to hide from their superiors. The abuse was so widely known and accepted that a picture of naked detainees forced into a human pyramid was reportedly used as a screen saver on a computer in the interrogation room.98 According to Maj. Gen. Taguba, “interrogators actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses. … [The] MP Brigade [was] directed to change facility procedures to “set the conditions” for military intelligence interrogations. Taguba cited the testimony of several military police: “One said the orders were ‘Loosen this guy up for us. Make sure he has a bad night. Make sure he gets the treatment.’” Another stated that “the prison wing belongs to [Military Intelligence] and it appeared that MI personnel approved the abuse.” That MP also noted that “[t]he MI staffs, to my understanding, have been giving Graner [an MP in charge of night shifts at Abu Ghraib] compliments on the way he has been handling the MI [detainees]. Example being statements like ‘Good job, they're breaking down real fast.’”

General Sanchez announced on May 14, 2004, that he had barred the use of coercive interrogation techniques including “stress positions,” “sleep deprivation,” and the use of hoods, that had previously been available, though it is still not clear what he had previously approved.

[67] See Letter on HRW's Concerns About the Rights of Iraqi Detainees, February 10, 2004,

[68] Douglas Jehl and Kate Zernike, “Scant evidence cited in long detention of Iraqis,” New York Times, May 30, 2004.

[69] “Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the treatment by the Coalition Forces of Prisoners of War and other Protected Persons by the Geneva Conventions in Iraq during arrest, internment and interrogation,” February 2004; Hereafter “ICRC report.”

[70] As Maj. General Antonio Taguba noted in his report, recent intelligence collection in support of Operation Enduring Freedom [the war in Afghanistan] posited a template whereby military police actively set favorable conditions for subsequent interviews. Investigative report, on alleged abuses at U.S. military prisons in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, Iraq by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba: “Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade.” Hereafter “Taguba report.”

[71] Matt Kelley, “Military intelligence troops accused of abuses in four camps outside Abu Ghraib,” May 29, 2004.

[72] Interestingly, this was not referred to as “rape,” although the threat to forcibly have sex with male detainees was referred to as rape.

[73] Taguba report.

[74] Sewell Chan and Thomas E. Ricks, “Iraq prison supervisors face army reprimand,” Washington Post, May 4, 2004.

[75] Andrew Marshall, “Reuters staff abused by U.S. in Iraq,” Reuters, May 18, 2004.

[76] Under the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, military personnel may be subject to so-called non-judicial punishment via an article 15 administrative hearing or to prosecution by court martial. Article 15 punishments include up to one-year imprisonment, fines, loss of rank, and discharge from the military.

[77] Arthur Kane and Miles Moffeit, “Carson GI eyed in jail death Iraqi general died in custody,” Denver Post, May 28, 2004.

[78] Robert Weller, “Soldier investigated in Iraqi general's death: Officer at Fort Carson says there is an ‘agenda,’” Associated Press, May 29, 2004.

[79] Chris Hansen, “Profile: death in custody; investigation into death of Iraqi detainee Kareem Abdul Jaleel reveals more prison atrocities, NBC NewsTranscripts, May 23, 2004. Also see: “US troops tortured Iraqi prisoner to death: report,” Agence France Presse, May 14, 2004.

[80] Editorial, “The Homicide Cases,” Washington Post, May 28, 2004.

[81] Chris Hansen, “Profile: death in custody; investigation into death of Iraqi detainee Kareem Abdul Jaleel reveals more prison atrocities, NBC News Transcripts, May 23, 2004.

[82] Chris Hansen, “Profile: death in custody; investigation into death of Iraqi detainee Kareem Abdul Jaleel reveals more prison atrocities, NBC News Transcripts, May 23, 2004.

[83] Tom Squitieri and Dave Moniz, “3rd of detainees who died were assaulted; Shot, strangled, beaten, certificates show,” USA Today, June 1, 2004.

[84] “Did abuses go beyond Abu Ghraib?” CBS News, May 29, 2004.

[85] Alex Roth and Jeff McDonald, “Iraqi detainee's death hangs over Marine unit,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 30, 2004; and Rick Rogers, “Abuse charges against Marine reservist are dismissed,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 13, 2004.

[86] See Report of the Secretary-General to the U.N. Security Council, July 17, 2003, S/2003/715, para. 47.

[87] In November 2003, Coalition Forces arrested the wife and daughter of General Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, former vice-chair of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council and a top Saddam Hussein associate, apparently as hostages, in violation of the Geneva Conventions.  See Human Rights Watch Letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, January 12, 2004,

[88] “Red Cross: Iraq abuse ‘tantamount to torture’: Agency says U.S. was repeatedly given details of mistreatment,” MSNBC News, May 11, 2004.

[89] Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, “Army tried to limit Abu Ghraib access,” New York Times, May 20, 2004. The article also quotes Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, whose soldiers guarded the prisoners, as saying that senior officers in Baghdad had treated the ICRC

report in “a light-hearted manner.”

[90] Taguba later decried Miller’s idea of transporting interrogation techniques from Guantánamo to Iraq, noting that there were major differences between the status of the detainees in the two locations.

[91] Douglas Jehl and Neil A. Lewis, “US disputed protected status of Iraq inmates,” New York Times, May 23, 2004. See also, Alberto R. Gonzales, “The Rule of Law and the Rules of War,” New York Times, May

15, 2004 (“Both the United States and Iraq are parties to the Geneva Conventions. The United States recognizes that these treaties are binding in the war for the liberation of Iraq. There has never been any suggestion by our government that the conventions do not apply in that conflict.”)

[92] Miller testified that “no program” at Guantánamo “has any of those techniques that are prohibited by the Geneva Convention.” But Sanchez, said that the procedures Miller brought from Guantánamo to Iraq “have to be modified” because “the Geneva Convention was fully applicable” in Iraq, in contrast to Guantánamo. Editorial, “Reveal the Rules,” Washington Post, May 23, 2004.

[93] Taguba took issue with this proposal and noted that it would be “in conflict with” the recommendations of the Ryder Report, a previous review of Iraqi prisons which stated that the engagement of military police in military interrogations to “actively set the favorable conditions for subsequent interviews runs counter to the smooth operation of a detention facility.”

[94] According to Thomas Pappas, the U.S. army officer in charge of the prison cells at Abu Ghraib, one of Miller’s recommendations was the use of military guard dogs in interrogations. Pappas also stated that the recommendation was approved by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top U.S. military official in Iraq.Both Miller and Sanchez deny this. R. Jeffrey Smith, “General is Said to Have Urged Used of Dogs,” Washington Post, May 26, 2004; Scott Higham, Joe Stephens and Josh White, “Prison Visits by General Reported in Hearing; Alleged Presence of Sanchez Cited by Lawyer,” Washington Post, May 23, 2004.

[95] See R. Jeffrey Smith, “Memo gave intelligence bigger role: increased pressure sought on prisoners,” Washington Post, May 21, 2004.

[96] Douglas Jehl and Andrea Elliott, “Cuba base sent its interrogators to Iraqi prison, New York Times, May 29, 2004.

[97] Editorial, “Reveal the rules,” Washington Post, May 23, 2004.

[98] Kate Zernike, “Only a few spoke up on abuse as many soldiers stayed silent,” New York Times, May 22, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>June 2004