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.

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

"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.

According to a narrative compiled for the US military's Baghdad legal office by the US units involved in the arrest and detention of the five Iraqis, a copy of which was provided to the Monitor, the reason for the raid was information that 20 people reportedly linked to Islamic militants were "training to go against coalition forces." During interrogation, the narrative states, one detainee, Assad Tali al-Duleimi, said they were "instructed to collect weapons and await the arrival of a sheikh from Iran who would lead them against the coalition."

While Hamza claims that he was pelted with rocks while handcuffed and that a burning chemical was applied to his eyes, the US military narrative paints a different picture. It describes how detainees were asked if they needed medication, and noted that one was a diabetic, and that they received daily medical checks. Hamza "was caught numerous times faking convulsions" and "observed to attempt to bite his knees and hitting [sic] himself on the head with his knees," the narrative states. He was released June 9, when he was deemed to be of "no further military intelligence value."

Hamza's version of events has convinced his colleagues from the Islamic Cultural Center, however: "I think this was against Islam, because we have nothing to do with terrorism," says Said Mahdi al-Hassani.

Another case of the gap between facts and beliefs involves Tariq Hussein al-Mashledani, a junior officer in the disbanded Iraqi army who died June 18 as US troops fired into a crowd during a protest for pay. Calling him a "martyr," Mr. Mashledani's family suspects that he survived the protest with two gunshot wounds, but was killed by US troops while in medical custody. They say there were only two wounds when he was taken away on a stretcher by US troops, but when they collected the body the next day there was a third wound - to the head. "I suspect that [the Americans] killed him inside," says family member Hassan Ghanem Khalaf.

That alleged third wound is news to the US medics who treated Mashledani. "We tried like hell to save his life," says Sgt. Guillermo Patino. "When he came in here, there were two [wounds]. No other gunshot wounds." Surgeon Lt. Col. Stephen Marks also voiced shock at the family reaction: "They are wrong about that."

Another story making the rounds began when the Assaah newspaper - the second most popular newspaper in Iraq - ran an account by "eyewitnesses" who said that more than 18 US troops had raped two Iraqi girls, aged 14 and 15, in Kut, southeast of Baghdad. European correspondents who pursued the story in Kut last week found that the story was completely false. Nobody in the hospital had heard of the incident, and local police dismissed the claims. Local television reported the police position. The US issued a statement saying it was not true. But floating around Iraq are 18,000 copies of a story that simply confirms to many Iraqis - who may not hear the factual version of events - that their worst fears about the US are being realized. Assaah's editors promised to print a retraction.

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