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Iraq prisoners routinely abused, soldiers allege

Richard A. Serrano Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – An Army captain and two sergeants from the elite 82nd Airborne Division who were responsible for supervising prisoners in Iraq have come forward with allegations that members of the unit routinely beat, tortured and abused detainees in Iraq in 2003 and early 2004.

The Pentagon announced Friday that it opened a formal criminal investigation into the accusations this week, saying it acted after learning of the charges recently from the Senate Armed Services Committee and Human Rights Watch, which monitors human rights abuses worldwide.

Capt. Ian Fishback, a West Point graduate, went to the committee with the charges within the last 10 days because he was frustrated that superior officers in his chain of command failed to respond, according to Armed Services Committee aides. Fishback and the two sergeants, whose names have not been disclosed, also described the allegations to Human Rights Watch. The captain is the first officer to go public with allegations of detainee abuse in Iraq since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal erupted in April 2004.

In recent letters to several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Fishback said he personally witnessed detainees being stripped, deprived of sleep, exposed to elements and “forced into uncomfortable positions for prolonged periods of time for the express purpose of coercing them into revealing information other than name, rank and service number.”

“We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day,” Human Rights Watch said one of the sergeants told the group in an interview. The sergeant reportedly described the mistreatment at a base near Fallujah as “just like” Abu Ghraib, saying, ” We did that for amusement.”

Neither the sergeants nor the captain, who sent letters to Senate committee members including chairman John Warner, R-Va., Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a victim of torture in Vietnam, could be reached for comment Friday.

If the allegations are sustained, they would represent one of the most serious episodes in the mistreatment of detainees by American military personnel since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This is the first time that regular Army soldiers have been implicated in charges of widespread abuse. Previous abuse cases have involved misconduct by relatively untrained and inadequately supervised National Guard and Reserve troops.

The 82nd Airborne, by contrast, is one of the most storied units in the American military, highly trained professionals with a record of distinguished service stretching back nearly a century. Based at Fort Bragg, N.C., it is the largest paratroop force in the world, and its members served in the Gulf War in Kuwait. Different brigades in the division have made several tours in Iraq.

In such a unit, evidence of a significant breakdown in discipline would call into question the Army’s contention that previously disclosed abuses did not reflect systemic problems. The misconduct reported by Fishback and the two noncommissioned officers is said to have begun in September of 2003 and continued through April of 2004.

A Capitol Hill aide familiar with the allegations said they were considered “very credible.”

In their disclosures, Fishback and the two sergeants have said detainees feared for their lives and referred to members of the 82nd as “the Murderous Maniacs” because of the level of brutality meted out against prisoners.

According to Human Rights Watch, the sergeants said they watched and participated in the violence, which included prisoners’ legs being broken.

At the Pentagon Friday, Army spokesman Paul Boyce said the military believes the accusations are serious enough to warrant a full-scale criminal investigation. “These are allegations of potential felony crimes,” Boyce said. “We want to speak to anyone else who might be able to corroborate this information. These things should be looked into thoroughly.”

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