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Rumsfeld questions policy on preventing Iraqi abuse of detainees

Larry Chin | December 7 2005

Comment: Rumsfeld is only interested in national sovereignty when he can use it as an excuse to continue the worldwide torture policy he crafted.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has questioned a policy that requires US military personnel who witness abuse of detainees in Iraqi custody to take "all reasonable actions" to prevent it, a spokesman said.

Rumsfeld seemed taken aback last month when General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, told him at a news conference that all US military personnel had the responsibility to try to stop abuse that they witness.

Since then, Rumsfeld has raised questions about the policy, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.

He indicated that a key question is what happens when a permanent, sovereign government is formed in Iraq following elections December 15.

"Our forces are in a sovereign nation and the law enforcement of that nation is the responsibility of that country," Whitman said.

At the same time, he said, "This is a new democracy. We know that this is tough stuff, and it's a change, a dramatic change from the way things were done in the past."

The problem came to the fore last month when US and Iraqi troops raided an Iraqi Interior Ministry jail in Baghdad and found about 170 detainees who had been abused and in some cases tortured.

A top commander in Iraq told reporters last week that US military intelligence is drawing up a list of other suspected Interior Ministry jails for inspection by US-Iraqi teams.

Whitman said US service members would be expected to try to persuade Iraqis abusing prisoners that their behavior is "inappropriate" and to report it up their chain of command.

But General George Casey, the commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I), issued a policy directive earlier this year setting a higher standard of responsibility for US troops who witness abuse of detainees in Iraqi custody.

"It is the responsibility of all MNF-I units and personnel to take all reasonable actions in accordance with the rules of engagement to stop or prevent any observed or suspected instances of physical or mental abuse that could lead to serious injury or death of a detained person in Iraqi custody," it said.

The directive added that soldiers should "promptly report the details through the chain of command so that those acts can be appropriately addressed with Iraqi government officials."

Asked whether Rumsfeld was questioning what was meant by "all reasonable actions," Whitman said: "That would certainly be part of it."

"The secretary, in the way that he typically does, asks questions to try and understand and ensure that the policies and procedures for our service members are well understood in a way that doesn't conflict," Whitman said.

Whitman noted that in other countries, US troops are typically governed by a status of forces agreement with the host country. But US forces have no such agreement with Iraq.

"So you have to make sure your policies and procedures are consistent with the laws of the land that we are in, and are well understood by the miitary personnel that are there," he said.

Rumsfeld alluded to his misgivings Monday during a question-and-answer session with students and faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

He said "reporting something that looks amiss is good; orally trying to stop something that looks amiss to me sounds very reasonable.

"Then the next question is: what level of force should they use to try to stop it if they see it happening in a country where they dont know the laws, they dont know the culture."

He said the response "could vary depending on whether ... the abusive act or the seemingly inhumane act or possibly illegal act ... is being performed by an official of that government -- a policeman or a soldier -- or just by someone else."

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