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In Iraq, a battle for credibility

As the US tries to stem armed attacks, it is also fighting a dangerous surge of rumors of alleged abuse by its forces.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2003


The way Riad Fadel Hamza tells the story, the six days he spent in US military detention were a horror show of abuse.

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"They poured water on me and used electricity," Mr. Hamza says, pointing to a graze on his forearm, as a cluster of Iraqis around him nod sympathetically. "They shocked me repeatedly."

US military officials investigating the case at the Monitor's request firmly reject those allegations. "We found absolutely nothing to substantiate that claim," says US Army Lt. Col. Kirk Warner, the deputy staff judge advocate for coalition forces in Iraq.

The conflicting versions illustrate that, as the US tries to crush pockets of armed resistance here, it is also locked in a struggle for credibility. With Iraqis seeing little improvement in their lives so far, and amid Iraqi criticism that American methods are too heavy handed, Iraq is increasingly fertile ground for resentment and rumor.

Three recent examples of alleged torture, alleged execution of an Iraqi in US medical care, and the alleged rape of two Iraqi women - all later proven to be false, or almost certain to be - show how such perceptions take seed, spread and can be believed.

"Because of the tough way Americans are behaving and treating people, Iraqis tend to believe anything they hear about the Americans," says Saad Jawad, a political scientist at Baghdad University. On top of that, the civilian administrator Paul Bremer, "is doing nothing to win over Iraqis," he says. "That's leading to anger - people see no positive sign, and so [they] believe anything."

US officers insist that they adhere to the Geneva Conventions as the occupying power in Iraq. But a preoccupation with security and frequent lethal attacks by anti-US forces have triggered questions of possible abuse, and resulted in civilian deaths.

Applying electric shocks to a prisoner in US custody is not unprecedented - an American soldier was found to have done so to a detainee in Somalia in 1993. But US legal officers in Iraq who investigated the case of Hamza and his fellow detainees say that the claim in this instance is false.

"These folks were not abused," says Warner. "[They] are taken to a pretty sizable detention facility. It's not like they are taken to a back room somewhere."

US forces came under fire last week from human rights watchdog Amnesty International for tough detention conditions in Iraq, though US officers say it never visited a US facility. The International Committee of the Red Cross has twice visited the detention facility at the Baghdad Airport, the officers say, and US officers say they can enter any time.

The US military is investigating whether its troops were responsible for the death of an Iraqi prisoner of war in a detention camp near Nasiriyah. And the British military is looking into the deaths of two Iraqis who were under British control and into allegations of torture or beatings by British troops.

By Saturday, more than 90 raids conducted in a week during "Operation Desert Scorpion" brought in 540 new detainees.

Hamza and four others were picked up in a raid of an Islamic cultural center June 3 in Jubayl, about 55 miles south of Baghdad, by US Marines acting on a tip that the building was being used to prepare anti-US attacks.