The view from Iraq: 'Tip of the iceberg? This iceberg is so big there's no water left to float it'

By Justin Huggler in Baghdad

09 May 2004


Pictures of abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees may have shocked the West, but in Iraq they came as no surprise. Stories of cruelty have been steadily coming out of prisons run by the occupation forces - giving the lie to American claims that the maltreatment is the work of a handful of "bad apples".

If anything, the story of these photographs is the story of the West's inability to believe the darkness at the heart of the occupation until it was staring them in the face. The Iraqis already knew, because most have a relative, a friend or an acquaintance who has been detained by the occupation forces at some time and has seen at first hand what goes on inside the prisons and detention centres.

It is not hard to find someone who has been held in Abu Ghraib and witnessed mistreatment, but most are deeply reluctant to talk to the Western press, both for fear of American reprisals and out of shame at what they have been through.

One man held there told The Independent on Sunday he had seen US guards tying prisoners naked to cell bars and setting dogs on them. "I saw one prisoner punished by order of his interrogators," said the man, who refused to be identified. "They tied him to the bars standing up for two hours at a time, and only let him rest for 45 minutes in between sessions. They kept this up for days in the cold weather."

The former detainee said most of the cruel and degrading treatment he witnessed was carried out by soldiers on the orders of interrogators, which backs up claims that it was part of a systematic effort to soften up prisoners for questioning. "It is systematic," said Stewart Vriesinga, from the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT), a volunteer organisation which has been chronicling abuse in occupation forces' prisons since last August, and has interviewed 72 detainees. "We documented one case of a cattle prod being used on a man's genitals. There were cases of young boys having their buttocks forced apart and being kicked in the anus."

According to the CPT, between 10,000 and 20,000 Iraqis are currently detained, with many others already released for lack of evidence. With so many witnesses, the occupation forces were never going to keep abuses secret from Iraqis. But they didn't need to: the few accounts of mistreatment that were published made little impact in the West until the appearance of photographic proof. Even if Iraqis were not surprised that the abuses were going on, however, that has not diminished the impact of the photographs themselves. The sight of female soldiers posing and grinning next to naked and humiliated Iraqi men has engendered raw fury.

Reports that the pictures have lost the US support among Iraqis are wide of the mark: there was no support left after the débâcle of their heavy-handed onslaught on Fallujah. But these pictures have heaped fuel on the fire - a fact not lost on the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who took advantage of the media attention following a US attack on his Mehdi Army to attack President George Bush over Abu Ghraib in his Friday sermon.

"Journalists ask me if these pictures are the tip of the iceberg," Mr Vriesinga says. "This iceberg has got so big there's no water left for it to float in."