Sept. 11 quest for vengeance prompted Iraqi abuse?

PTI | ByAssociated Press, New York
May 12, 2004 07:41 PM IST

As US forces surged through the desert to topple Saddam Hussein, slogans and symbols referring to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made clear that a spirit of anti-terrorism vengeance infused the ranks. "Let's Roll" was a common battle cry, evoking the defiant passengers aboard one of the planes hijacked in those attacks.

As US forces surged through the desert to topple Saddam Hussein, slogans and symbols referring to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made clear that a spirit of anti-terrorism vengeance infused the ranks.

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"Let's Roll" was a common battle cry, evoking the defiant passengers aboard one of the planes hijacked in those attacks. Soldiers displayed flags from Ground Zero and images of the World Center's twin towers.

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More than a year after Saddam's ouster, no proof of any ties to al-Qaida or Sept. 11 has materialized. Some skeptics suggest that the avenging rhetoric and imagery instead may have fostered an atmosphere conducive to the maltreatment of Iraqis who had no connection whatever to international terrorism.

Curt Goering, deputy executive director of Amnesty International-USA, said the Bush administration bears some responsibility for blurring the lines between Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.

"The tone that was set, all the way to the top, and the climate in which these soldiers operated was an invitation to this kind of abuse," Goering said. "Governments have the obligation to take appropriate steps to protect their citizens, but they have to take these in a manner consistent with respect for fundamental human rights."

The Army's own investigative report, by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, suggested that interrogation techniques used against suspected terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay were applied inappropriately in Iraq.

Taguba concluded that there were many common criminals at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, but probably no detainees linked to al-Qaida or other international terrorist groups. In a separate report, the International Committee of the Red Cross suggested that most Abu Ghraib prisoners were detained by mistake. However, Army Lt. Col. Joe Yoswa, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday it was wrong to suggest that the prison abuse was symptomatic of broader problems of attitude. As for the Sept. 11 imagery, Yoswa said it was hard to gauge what impact such rallying cries had on individual soldiers.

"Does a rallying cry motivate troops to go out and do things? Yes," he said. "It motivates people to stand up and volunteer and help try to get Iraq on its feet as a country."

Some American Islamic leaders contend the maltreatment at Abu Ghraib is part of a wider animosity toward Muslims that was stirred up by Sept. 11.

The prisoner abuse "represents a growing trend in our culture that demonizes and dehumanizes Arabs and Muslims," the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Muslim Public Affairs Council said in a joint statement. "It conflates innocents with criminals."

US officials have consistently depicted the Iraq conflict as part of the war on terrorism, and many soldiers said their decision to serve was prompted by Sept. 11. Among them was Pfc. Lynndie England, one of the soldiers charged with abuse; her lawyer says she joined the Army Reserves to help prevent future terrorist attacks. Capt. Adrian Wheeler, commander of a Kentucky Army National Guard military police company, said the Sept. 11 attacks _ rather than contributing to any excesses _ provided an incentive to perform better.

"At no point have we loosened up on professionalism or the values that we hold true," said Wheeler, a police officer whose troops transported Iraqi POWs from battlefields to temporary holding facilities.

"After 9-11, if anything, soldiers, citizens I think really wanted to prove themselves as professionals," Wheeler said. "That was the time when people really stepped up."

Leonard Wong, a professor of military strategy at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has visited Iraq twice to assess the motivations of US soldiers. While some cited Sept. 11, more expressed a desire to liberate Iraq or help it achieve stability, Wong said.

However, Sept. 11 imagery provided a backdrop for many troops during the early phases of the war. The Navy Seabees, for example, called their Kuwaiti base "Camp 93" in honor of the passengers who fought hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 before it crashed in Pennsylvania. One of the units at Abu Ghraib was named after Peter Ganci, a fire chief killed at the World Trade Center. "Soldiers were encouraged to make the incorrect links," said Jimmy Massey, a former Marine sergeant who served in Iraq, then quit the force and has affiliated with an anti-war group called Veterans for Peace.

Massey said "a bunch of innocent civilians" were killed by his platoon and he attributed these deaths in part to military intelligence reports warning of potential terrorist attacks by non-uniformed Iraqis.

"You put a bunch of Army or Marines out in the desert and tell them to guard these supposed terrorists, and they're going to start inventing ways to keep themselves busy," Massey said. Nancy Lessin, who co-founded a group called Military Families Speak Out, said her stepson's Marine unit took along a flag from Ground Zero when it headed to Iraq.

"That whole 9-11 connection paved the way for certain things to happen in certain ways," she said. "It's revenge and vengeance, based on a lie."

Curt Goering, the Amnesty International official, said at least some of the soldiers who committed abuses likely believed their actions were patriotic.

"Carrying out these despicable acts doesn't just happen," he said. "In every war, part of the process of transforming a person into a soldier involves a certain dehumanizing of the enemy. ... They often believe they're acting for the greater good."

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