Army- Chaos defined U.S. prison in Iraq

Sunday, May 9, 2004

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq -- A U.S. Army investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib prison depicts the military police running the penitentiary as a motley lot, overwhelmed by one of the worst assignments in Iraq and bitter about the military's broken promises of going home.

When Pentagon investigators arrived at the prison west of Baghdad, they found fatalistic Army Reservists toting weapons while wearing civilian clothes. Also, command authority had been replaced by old friendships, said a report written by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba.

Not enough soldiers were assigned for the work required, and headquarters "continued to assign us more missions far outside of our capabilities," the unit's commander, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

Taguba's report, which relates the abuses of Iraqi inmates at the sprawling prison, also describes numerous breakdowns within the 800th Military Police Brigade, especially its 320th Battalion, the unit running the prison.

The report blasts Karpinski for giving the 320th, the brigade's most troubled unit, the formidable task of running the huge penitentiary. Battalion members already were stigmatized by their beatings of Iraqi inmates last May at Camp Bucca, a southern Iraq prison.

The report details myriad shortcomings of a unit given enormous responsibility.

The 320th, an Army Reserve unit based near Scranton, Pa., was woefully unprepared to operate the 280-acre prison holding some 7,000 detainees, Taguba's report said. That is almost twice as many detainees than are supposed to be handled by a battalion, which usually contains no more than 500 soldiers.

It said the soldiers of the 320th appeared to have little training or knowledge about running prisons or respecting detainees' rights. Escapes were rampant.

Prison life was punctuated by riots and guards' shootings of inmates. The few soldiers who had worked in civilian prisons in the United States taught the others what they knew, the report says.

Karpinski, a Gulf War veteran and a business consultant in civilian life, is faulted for much that went wrong. But her job was never going to be easy.

Last June, Karpinski took command of the 800th MP Brigade, a unit led to believe it was going home shortly after major combat ended May 1, 2003.

Instead, it got a new mission: running the entire U.S. prison system across Iraq -- 12 camps and jails.

"Morale suffered, and over the next few months there did not appear to have been any attempt by the command to mitigate this morale problem," the Taguba report says.

Those sent to Abu Ghraib found themselves living in one of Iraq's toughest regions -- the Sunni Muslim rebel stronghold west of Baghdad. The prison, which also houses the base, became a target for guerrilla mortar barrages that killed dozens, mainly prisoners.

The Abu Ghraib base also lacked the morale-raising amenities of other bases. It had no cafeteria, convenience store or barbershop, and offered little recreation.

As time wore on, the isolated 320th MP Battalion drifted away from Army discipline, adopting characteristics that appear closer to the Vietnam-era Army than those of the professional force touted by the Pentagon.

The Army's report documents that breakdown:

-- Friendships took precedent to command relations among some Reservists, who knew each other outside the Army, giving the deployment an informal feel. Saluting on the base was optional for a while.

Prison logbooks were filled with "unprofessional entries and flippant comments which highlighted the lack of discipline within the unit." Taguba found no indication that commanders ever reviewed the books.

The 320th was blamed for security lapses that allowed dozens of inmates to escape, or get caught trying. Taguba found 27 documented escape incidents and said he was told about others that were never reported.

The battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, was described in the report as an "extremely ineffective" leader who left day-to-day operations to his second-in-command.

At one point, Karpinski sent the overwrought Phillabaum to Kuwait for two weeks to "give him some relief from the pressure he was experiencing."

Phillabaum was replaced by Lt. Col. Ronald Chew, another battalion commander within the 800th MPs. Neither Karpinski, Phillabaum nor Chew told headquarters about the temporary switch.

"Temporarily removing one commander and replacing him with another serving battalion commander without an order and without notifying superior or subordinate commands is without precedent in my military career," Taguba wrote.

Phillabaum was suspended from his duties in January.

Meanwhile, the MPs struck up relations with Army interrogators at the prison. Low-level MPs were soon heeding interrogators' requests to "set the conditions" for interrogations by mistreating inmates, the Taguba report says.

The MPs developed that relationship with interrogators outside the chain of command, the Taguba report says.

For her part, Karpinski, now back in the United States -- as is most of the 800th MP Brigade -- said in her e-mail to the AP that she got "little or no support" from the U.S. military brass or the U.S.-led occupation authority.

This, she said, "resulted in my units having to do far more than detention operations in an effort to maintain the most minimum standards."

Karpinski said the Army's reporting, and the way it is being presented by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the new head of prison operations, and military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, appears intended to brand her -- a Reservist and an outsider -- a scapegoat.

"The Taguba Report is flawed in may ways and Kimmitt and Miller know it," Karpinski said.

"The portion of the Taguba Report released to the press is only a small portion of the complete report and once again there may have been ulterior motivation, i.e., find a scapegoat (and) then create the basis for blame."

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