US soldiers face charges of prisoner abuse
Though incidents are rare, the legal and ethical lapses highlight moral quandaries inherent in the Iraq war.
To former military police Master Sgt. Lisa Girman and two of her fellow soldiers, May 12 was just "another night in the desert" restraining unruly Iraqi war prisoners. But in January, the three Pennsylvania MPs were discharged from the military for kicking and punching Iraqis, including one allegedly linked to the ambush of the Jessica Lynch convoy. [Editor's note: In the original version, Girman's name was misspelled.]Skip to next paragraph
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In a similar case, a Marine guard testified in February that beating uncooperative Iraqi detainees was common. In all, eight Marines have been charged for mistreating detainees, one of whom died in custody.
Now, the US military has charged six more American soldiers with assault, indecent acts, cruelty, and maltreatment in connection with the alleged abuse of as many as 19 detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad.
From detainee abuse to the excessive use of force and disputed killings of civilians, the Iraq conflict is producing its share of legal and ethical lapses by US service members, despite strenuous efforts by US commanders to avoid them.
The breaches involve only a tiny fraction of the more than 150,000-strong US occupation force, which military ethicists and human rights groups have given generally good marks for their comportment in Iraq. Still, such violations could cause disproportionate damage to the US military's image among Iraqis.
"The forces of gravity that drag you down to the level of your enemy are very powerful," says Albert Pierce, director of the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics at the US Naval Academy. "Sometimes they are inherent in conflict, sometimes they are part of an inherent strategy by the enemy," he says, adding that US commanders are making an "extraordinary effort" to resist such forces.
Tensions could grow over such infractions if, as expected, US forces continue to operate free from Iraqi legal jurisdiction following the July 1 transfer of power from the US-led coalition to Iraqi authorities. US officials say they hope to reach an agreement with Iraqi leaders this month on what the legal status of US forces will be. "We will not have a period of time when our forces are without protection," Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, told a House hearing earlier this month.
Normally, agreements on the status of US forces based abroad grant a degree of jurisdiction over them to local courts, but Iraq could prove an exception, says Georgetown University law professor Anthony Arend. "I could see the US saying, the [Iraqi] court system is not well enough established, and we don't believe US forces could get a fair trial, so we reserve the right to try them under any circumstance."
Maltreatment of Iraqis is not the only problem that has sparked US military investigations and legal or disciplinary action. US service members have also been accused of victimizing each other. The Army's Criminal Investigation Command has probed allegations of felonies by US soldiers in Iraq such as sexual assault, larceny, and smuggling, and the Army has set up a hotline for reporting sexual assault.