Amid Abu Ghraib scandal, Marine lawyer makes sure troops stick to the rules
A US military lawyer assembled the guards at the jail on the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment's desert base to convey the latest orders: it is no longer permissible to hood Iraqi detainees. Blindfolds will suffice. The practice was banned by the US command after the scandal erupted over treatment of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
A US military lawyer assembled the guards at the jail on the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment's desert base to convey the latest orders: it is no longer permissible to hood Iraqi detainees. Blindfolds will suffice.
The practice was banned by the US command after the scandal erupted over treatment of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. With the international outcry over the abuse captured in photographs shown worldwide, the Marines are being extra careful to go by the book in their handling of suspects.
"Sandbagging is now prohibited," said Capt. Jamie McCall, referring to the practice of putting bags over the heads of Iraqi suspects rounded up in raids or captured in combat. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh law school, McCall, 29, is a member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps. The battalion sees him as their in-house lawyer, and commander Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne calls McCall his "legal beagle." "I am here to answer their questions about all legal issues," said McCall, from Wilmington, Delaware.
These days, McCall is busier than ever.
The scandal over the US Army's treatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison - less than an hour's drive from this battalion's base - shocked many Marines who take pride in their elite training and credo.
"Those people who did this will absolutely face some stiff penalties," Byrne said.
The first defendant goes on trial Wednesday in Baghdad. However, the Marine record in Iraq is not spotless. Two Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, face courts-martial on charges including assault and dereliction of duty in the death of an Iraqi prisoner in their custody last year in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Before getting to Abu Ghraib, McCall said, each Iraqi detainee passes two levels of screening - at the detention center with the unit that captured him, then, if initial questioning determines his detention should continue, at a division-level detention. Only after division screening shows "compelling evidence" that prisoners should be held are they taken to a third-level prison such as Abu Ghraib, where a magistrate court sits and decides the fate of each prisoner, McCall said.
Photographing any prisoner - many troops have personal digital cameras in Iraq - goes against rules of conduct and is strictly banned, McCall says.
Before deployment, Marines were "schooled up on the rules of engagement, law of war, what does and does not constitute hostile intent," McCall said. "And above all, the Geneva Conventions." Once in Iraq, "we all carry a rules of engagement card" - a yellow card with lists of these definitions, McCall said. When officially speaking of the enemy, the Marines go by the book, using tongue twisting acronyms like FRE for Former Regime Elements, NCF for Non-Compliance Forces, ACF or Anti-Coalition Forces, and lately, AIF for Anti-Iraqi Forces.
But in April, during the urban warfare with insurgents in Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold some 35 miles west of Baghdad, the enemy became simply the "bad guys."
During Fallujah battles, Marines blamed the insurgents for "abusing law of war."
"It was unbelievable," McCall said. "They transported weapons in ambulances marked with the Red
Crescent, stored up arms in mosques and hospitals, fired at us from mosques and shrines."
Still, Fallujah insurgents were considered "illegal combatants" and as such had to display a "hostile intent," not simply brandish a firearm, before they could become a target of the Marines. Rules of engagement differ elsewhere.
In the southern city of Najaf, where US troops battle a renegade Shiite cleric's militia, the al-Mahdi Army in its uniform black dress and headscarves, the group is perceived as a "hostile force."
"All I have to do is see a guy in that uniform, he does not even have to see me, he does not have to have a weapon in his hand, he goes down," Byrne said.
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