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Torture in Iraq

The following article is an excerpt, in somewhat modified form, from “Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division,” a report issued by Human Rights Watch on September 25, 2005. The full report is available at hrw.org/reports/2005/us0905.

On their day off people would show up all the time. Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent.1 In a way it was sport. The cooks were all US soldiers. One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the fucking cook. He shouldn’t be in with no PUCs.”

—82nd Airborne sergeant,describing events at FOB Mercury, Iraq

If I as an officer think we’re not even following the Geneva Conventions, there’s something wrong. If officers witness all these things happening, and don’t take action, there’s something wrong. If another West Pointer tells me he thinks, ‘Well, hitting somebody might be okay,’ there’s something wrong.”

—82nd Airborne officer, describing confusion in Iraq
concerning allowable interrogation techniques



Residents of Fallujah called them “the Murderous Maniacs” because of how they treated Iraqis in detention. They were soldiers of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, stationed at Forward Operating Base Mercury (FOB Mercury) in Iraq. The soldiers considered this name a badge of honor.2

One officer and two noncommissioned officers (NCOs) of the 82nd Airborne who witnessed abuse, speaking on condition of anonymity, described in multiple interviews with Human Rights Watch how their battalion in 2003–2004 routinely used physical and mental torture as a means of intelligence gathering and for stress relief. One soldier raised his concerns within the Army chain of command for seventeen months before the Army agreed to undertake an investigation, but only after he had contacted members of Congress and considered going public with the story.

According to their accounts, the torture and other mistreatment of Iraqis in detention was systematic and was known at varying levels of command. Military Intelligence personnel, they said, directed and encouraged Army personnel to subject prisoners to forced, repetitive exercise, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, sleep deprivation for days on end, and exposure to extremes of heat and cold as part of the interrogation process. At least one interrogator beat detainees in front of other soldiers. Soldiers also incorporated daily beatings of detainees in preparation for interrogations. Civilians believed to be from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted interrogations out of sight, but not earshot, of soldiers, who heard what they believed were abusive interrogations.

All three soldiers expressed confusion on the proper application of the Geneva Conventions on the laws of armed conflict in the treatment of prisoners. All had served in Afghanistan prior to Iraq and said that contradictory statements by US officials regarding the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (see Conclusion) contributed to their confusion, and ultimately to how they treated prisoners. Although none were still in Iraq when we interviewed them, the NCOs said they believed the practices continue.

The soldiers came forward because of what they described as deep frustration with the military chain of command’s failure to view the abuses as symptomatic of broader failures of leadership and respond accordingly. All three are active-duty soldiers who wish to continue their military careers. A fax letter, e-mail, and repeated phone calls to the 82nd Airborne Division regarding the major allegations in the report received no response.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004, senior officials in the Bush administration claimed that severe prisoner abuse was committed only by a few rogue, poorly trained reserve personnel at a single facility in Iraq. But since then, hundreds of other cases of abuse from Iraq and Afghanistan have come to light, described in US government documents, reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross, media reports, legal documents filed by detainees, and from detainee accounts provided to human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch.3 And while the military has launched investigations and prosecutions of lower-ranking personnel for detainee abuse, in most cases the military has used closed administrative hearings to hand down light administrative punishments like pay reductions and reprimands, instead of criminal prosecutions before courts-martial. The military has made no effort to conduct a broader criminal investigation focusing on how military command might have been involved in reported abuse, and the administration continues to insist that reported abuse had nothing to do with the administration’s decisions on the applicability of the Geneva Conventions or with any approved interrogation techniques.

These soldiers’ firsthand accounts provide further evidence contradicting claims that abuse of detainees by US forces was isolated or spontaneous. The accounts here suggest that the mistreatment of prisoners by the US military is even more widespread than has been acknowledged to date, including among troops belonging to some of the best-trained, most decorated, and highly respected units in the US Army. They describe in vivid terms abusive interrogation techniques ordered by Military Intelligence personnel and known to superior officers.

Most important, they demonstrate that US troops on the battlefield were given no clear guidance on how to treat detainees. When the administration sent these soldiers to war in Afghanistan, it threw out the rules they were trained to uphold (embodied in the Geneva Conventions and the US Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation). Instead, President Bush said only that detainees should be treated “humanely,” not as a requirement of the law but as policy. And no steps were taken to define what “humane” was supposed to mean in practice.4 Once in Iraq, their commanders demanded that they extract intelligence from detainees without telling them what was allowed and what was forbidden. Yet when abuses inevitably followed, the administration blamed only low-ranking soldiers instead of taking responsibility.

These soldiers’ accounts show how the administration’s refusal to insist on adherence to a lawful, long-recognized, and well-defined standard of treatment contributed to the torture of prisoners. They also show how that policy betrayed the soldiers in the field—sowing confusion in the ranks, exposing them to legal sanction when abuses occurred, and placing in an impossible position all those who wished to behave honorably.

The officer and NCOs interviewed by Human Rights Watch say that torture of detainees took place almost daily at FOB Mercury during their entire deployment there, from September 2003 to April 2004. While two of the soldiers also reported abuses at FOB Tiger, near the Syrian border, the most egregious incidents allegedly took place at FOB Mercury. The acts of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment they described include severe beatings (in one incident, a soldier reportedly broke a detainee’s leg with a baseball bat), blows and kicks to the face, chest, abdomen, and extremities, and repeated kicks to various parts of the detainees’ bodies; the application of chemical substances to exposed skin and eyes; forced stress positions, such as holding heavy water jugs with arms outstretched, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness; sleep deprivation; subjecting detainees to extremes of hot and cold; the stacking of detainees into human pyramids; and the withholding of food (beyond crackers) and water.

According to Army Field Manual 19-4 covering enemy prisoner of war operations, military police have responsibility for safeguarding, accounting for, and maintaining captives. The soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that established procedure was violated by having frontline soldiers guard and prepare detainees for interrogation, instead of speeding detainees to a rear area where they would be looked after by trained military police.

Detainees in Iraq were consistently referred to as PUCs. This term was devised in Afghanistan to take the place of the traditional designation of prisoner of war (POW), after President Bush decided that the Geneva Conventions did not apply there. It carried over to Iraq, even though the US military command and the Bush administration have continually stated that the Geneva Conventions are in effect. Although not all persons captured on a battlefield are entitled to prisoner of war status, US military doctrine interprets the Geneva Conventions as requiring that all captured persons be treated as POWs unless and until a “competent tribunal” determines otherwise.5

Detainees at FOB Mercury were held in so-called PUC tents, which were separated from the rest of the base by concertina wire. Detainees typically spent three days at the base before being released or sent to Abu Ghraib. Officers in the Military Intelligence unit and officers in charge of the guards directed the treatment of detainees. Soldiers told us that detainees who did not cooperate with interrogators were sometimes denied water and given only crackers to eat, and were often beaten. There was little done to hide the mistreatment of detainees: one of the soldiers we interviewed observed torture when he brought newly captured Iraqis to the PUC tents.

The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief for soldiers. Soldiers said they felt welcome to come to the PUC tent on their off-hours to “fuck a PUC” or “smoke a PUC.” “Fucking a PUC” referred to beating a detainee, while “smoking a PUC” referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. The soldiers said that when a detainee had a visible injury such as a broken limb due to “fucking” or “smoking,” an Army physician’s assistant would be called to administer an analgesic and fill out the proper paperwork. They said those responsible would state that the detainee was injured during the process of capture and the physician’s assistant would sign off on this. Broken bones occurred “every other week” at FOB Mercury.

Smoking” was not limited to stress relief but was central to the interrogation system employed by the 82nd Airborne Division at FOB Mercury. Officers and NCOs from the Military Intelligence unit would direct guards to “smoke” the detainees prior to an interrogation, and would direct that certain detainees were not to receive sleep, water, or food beyond crackers. Directed “smoking” would last for the twelve to twenty-four hours prior to an interrogation. As one soldier put it: “[The military intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to cooperate.”

The soldiers believed that about half of the detainees at Camp Mercury were released because they were not involved in the insurgency, but they left with the physical and mental scars of torture. “If he’s a good guy, you know, now he’s a bad guy because of the way we treated him,” one sergeant told Human Rights Watch.

The soldiers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke had served as guards in Afghanistan and had observed interrogations at FOB Tiger in Iraq, and said that civilian interrogators at those locations had also used coercive methods against prisoners. These interrogators were always referred to by the US military abbreviation OGA, which stands for “Other Government Agencies.” It was assumed that such persons were with the CIA, but because OGA also includes other civilian agencies, the soldiers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said they could not be sure.

  1. 1

    Person Under Control” or PUC (pronounced “puck”) is the term used by US military forces to refer to Iraqi detainees. For the complete text of the report, with footnotes not included here, see hrw.org.

  2. 2

    FOB Mercury is located approximately ten miles east of Fallujah, which was a center of the insurgency at the time. US forces came under intense attacks in and around Fallujah, placing them under constant pressure and at high risk in daily combat. As soon as the 82nd pulled out of FOB Mercury in April 2004, the US Marines that replaced the 82nd undertook a major offensive against insurgents in Fallujah.

  3. 3

    See Human Rights Watch, “Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the US Abuse of Detainees,” April 2005, Section II: “A World of Abuse,” available at hrw.org/reports/2005/us0405/4.htm#_Toc101408092. See also “Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the Treatment by the Coalition Forces of Prisoners of War and Other Protected Persons,” February 2004, available at www.health-now.org/mediafiles/mediafile50.pdf (describing detainee abuse in locations across Iraq, including sites in Baghdad, al-Khaïm, Tikrit, Ramadi, and at Abu Ghraib, at p. 7); Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, “The Conflict in Iraq: Detainees; US Military Says 26 Inmate Deaths May Be Homicide,” The New York Times, March 16, 2005 (describing cases of detainee homicide occurring in areas across Afghanistan and Iraq). On Iraq-related abuses, see Major General Antonio M. Taguba, “Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade,” March 2004 (describing “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib prison, constituting “systematic and illegal abuse of detainees,” at p. 16).

  4. 4

    See Timothy Flanigan, written responses to questions submitted by US Senator Richard Durbin, following Flanigan’s confirmation hearing to be deputy attorney general of the United States on July 26, 2005. Flanigan, who was deputy White House counsel when President Bush issued his order requiring “humane treatment” of detainees, stated: “I do not believe the term ‘inhumane’ treatment is susceptible to succinct definition.” In a further exchange with Senator Durbin, Flanigan stated: “I am not aware of any guidance provided by the White House specifically related to the meaning of ‘inhumane treatment.’”

  5. 5

    Operational Law Handbook, edited by Major J. Berger, Major Derek Grims, and Major Eric Jensen (International and Operational Law Department, Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, 2004), p. 26.

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