This was buried deep in the New York Times yesterday, but is simply unbelievable. What sane argument can be made for failing to do our best to ensure fair treatment of detainees?
Vice President Dick Cheney is leading a White House lobbying effort to block legislation offered by Republican senators that would regulate the detention, treatment and trials of detainees held by the American military.
In an unusual, 30-minute private meeting on Capitol Hill on Thursday night, Mr. Cheney warned three senior Republicans on the Armed Services Committee that their legislation would interfere with the president’s authority and his ability to protect Americans against terrorist attacks.
The legislation, which is still being drafted, includes provisions to bar the military from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross; prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees; and use only interrogation techniques authorized in a new Army field manual.
The three Republicans are John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John W. Warner of Virginia, the committee chairman. They have complained that the Pentagon has failed to hold senior officials and military officers responsible for the abuses that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad, and at other detention centers in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The senators could attach their legislation to the $442 billion Pentagon authorization bill for the 2006 fiscal year, which is to be debated on the Senate floor next week. Senate Democrats, led by Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, have said they will offer a competing amendment to establish an independent commission, modeled after the 9/11 panel, to investigate detainee abuses and operations.
On Thursday, just before Mr. Cheney’s meeting, the White House warned in a blunt statement that Senate approval of a Republican or Democratic amendment was likely to prompt Mr. Bush’s top advisers to recommend he veto the measure.
Mr. Cheney’s meeting with the senators was first reported on Saturday by The Washington Post.
A spokesman for Mr. Warner, John Ullyot, declined Saturday to comment on the senators’ meeting with Mr. Cheney and said, “the matter continues to be studied,” adding that the Senate could vote on all or some of the provisions next week.
Mr. Cheney’s involvement in the issue illustrates the White House’s level of concern that the Republican bill could pass. Mr. Cheney is president of the Senate, and next to Mr. Bush, he is the administration’s most potent lobbyist on Capitol Hill.
Maria Tamburri, a spokeswoman for the White House, said Mr. Cheney’s conversations with members of Congress were private, and she declined to provide any details.
A senior Defense Department spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk publicly about the matter, said Mr. Cheney took the administration’s lead role because the issue cut across the jurisdictions of several federal agencies, and because he had long been the administration’s chief defender of presidential prerogative.
“There’s a natural tension here between the executive and Congressional branches,” the official said.
According to Senate officials, Mr. McCain is considering introducing four amendments. One would set standards for interrogating military detainees and would limit them to techniques outlined in a new Army field manual. It would not cover the Central Intelligence Agency.
A second provision would require that all detainees held by the military be registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross. This measures seeks to prevent the holding of unregistered prisoners, or ghost detainees, in Iraq and Afghanistan and at other military sites.
Mr. McCain is also weighing a provision to prohibit the practice of seizing people and sending them abroad for interrogation. This practice has become the subject of mounting international criticism, as some of the countries involved are known to use torture. It has caused a deepening rift between the United States and some of its strongest allies.
Finally, Mr. McCain’s amendment would bar cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in American custody. This would effectively prohibit not only physical abuse but also practices like placing women’s undergarments on the heads of Muslim male prisoners in an effort to humiliate them.
Mr. Graham, who has expressed some support for the idea of a wide-ranging independent commission to look into detainee abuses, is seeking to define the term “enemy combatant” for detention purposes, and to regulate the military tribunals to be held soon at the detention center at Guant√°namo Bay, Cuba.
Also of note in yesterday’s Times…. Has the Iraq conflict already become a civil war with our soldiers caught in the middle?
The first signs that America’s top officials in Iraq were revising their thinking about what they might accomplish in Iraq came a year ago. As Iraq resumed its sovereignty after the period of American occupation, the new American team that arrived then, headed by Ambassador John D. Negroponte, had a withering term for the optimistic approach of their predecessors, led by L. Paul Bremer III.
The new team called the departing Americans “the illusionists,” for their conviction that America could create a Jeffersonian democracy on the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s medieval brutalism. One American military commander began his first encounter with American reporters by asking, “Well, gentlemen, tell me: Do you think that events here afford us the luxury of hope?”
It seemed clear then that the administration, for all its public optimism, had begun substituting more modest goals for the idealists’ conception of Iraq. How much more modest has become clearer in the 12 months since.
From the moment American troops crossed the border 28 months ago, the specter hanging over the American enterprise here has been that Iraq, freed from Mr. Hussein’s tyranny, might prove to be so fractured – by politics and religion, by culture and geography, and by the suspicion and enmity sown by Mr. Hussein’s years of repression – that it would spiral inexorably into civil war.
If it did, opponents of the American-led invasion had warned, American troops could get caught in the crossfire between Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Turkmen, secularists and believers – reduced, in the grimmest circumstances, to the common target of a host of contending militias.
Now, events are pointing more than ever to the possibility that the nightmare could come true. Recent weeks have seen the insurgency reach new heights of sustained brutality. The violence is ever more centered on sectarian killings, with Sunni insurgents targeting hundreds of Shiite and Kurdish civilians in suicide bombings. There are reports of Shiite death squads, some with links to the interior ministry, retaliating by abducting and killing Sunni clerics and community leaders.
The past 10 days have seen such a quickening of these killings, particularly by the insurgents, that many Iraqis are saying that the civil war has already begun.
That at least some senior officials in Washington understand the gravity of the situation seems clear from remarks made at the Foreign Press Center in Washington two weeks ago by Zalmay Khalilzad, who arrives in Baghdad this week to begin as Mr. Negroponte’s successor. In his remarks, Mr. Khalilzad abandoned a convention that had bound senior American officials when speaking of Iraq – to talk of civil war only if reporters raised it first, and then only to dismiss it as a beyond-the-fringe possibility. Using the term twice in one paragraph, he spoke of civil war as something America must do everything to avoid.
“Iraq is poised at the crossroads between two starkly different visions,” he said. “The foreign terrorists and hardline Baathist insurgents want Iraq to fall into a civil war.”
The new ambassador struck a positive chord, to be sure, saying “Iraqis of all communities and sects, like people everywhere, want to establish peace and create prosperity.” Still, his coda remained one of caution: “I do not underestimate the difficulty of the present situation.”
One measure of the doubts afflicting American officials here has been a hedging in the upbeat military assessments that generals usually offer, coupled with a resort to statistics carefully groomed to show progress in curbing the insurgents that seems divorced from realities on the ground. One example of the new “metrics” has been a rush of figures on the buildup of Iraq’s army and police force – a program known to many reporters who have been embedded on joint operations as one beset by inadequate training, poor leadership, inadequate weaponry and poor morale.
Officers involved in running the program offer impressive-sounding figures – including the fact that, by mid-June, the Iraqi forces had been given 306 million rounds of ammunition, roughly 12 bullets for each of Iraq’s 25 million people. But when one senior American officer involved was asked whether the Americans might end up arming the Iraqis for a civil war, he paused for a moment, then nodded. “Maybe,” he said.
The war’s wider pattern has always held the seeds of an all-out sectarian conflict, of the kind that largely destroyed Lebanon. The insurgency has been rooted in the Sunni Arab minority dispossessed by the toppling of Mr. Hussein, and most of its victims have been Shiites, the majority community who have been the main political beneficiaries of Mr. Hussein’s demise. Shiites have died in countless hundreds at their mosques and their marketplaces, victims of insurgent ambushes and bombs, their deaths celebrated on Islamic Web sites by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, who has called Shiites “monkeys” and their religion an affront to God.
Last weekend, it was the turn of the small town of Mussayib, where at least 71 people died when a suicide bomber blew himself up under a fuel tanker outside the main mosque. Hitherto, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had urged Shiites not to retaliate, but to focus instead on the American-sponsored electoral process, which brought Shiite parties victory in January and is likely to do so again in voting for a full, five-year government in December.
But this time, the ayatollah, his patience spent, demanded that the transitional government, which is led by Shiites, “defend the country against mass annihilation.”
If that was a call for tougher military action against the insurgents, it played into a situation made all the more volatile in recent months by signs that hard-line Shiites have begun to strike back. There have been persistent reports, mostly in Baghdad, of Shiite death squads in police uniforms abducting, torturing and killing Sunni Arab clerics, community leaders and others. In Baghdad, a police commando unit composed mainly of Shiites raided a hospital two weekends ago and abducted 13 Sunni men accused of being insurgents. Sixteen hours later, the bodies of 10 were delivered to a morgue, the victims of suffocation in a locked metal-topped police van in a temperature nearing 120 degrees.
Even the new Iraqi forces, hailed by the Bush administration as the key to an eventual American troop withdrawal, seem as likely to provoke a civil war as to prevent one. The 170,000 men already trained are dominated by Shiites and Kurds, in a proportion even higher than the 80 percent those groups represent in the population. Though there are thousands of Sunni Arabs in the forces, including some generals, Iraqi units that are sent to the worst hot spots are often dominated by Shiites and Kurds, some recruited from sectarian militias deeply hostile to Sunni Arabs.
The contempt this provokes was voiced by Dhari al-Bedri, a Baghdad University professor with a home in Samarra, a Sunni town. “The Iraqi army in Samarra is Badr, Dawa and Pesh Merga,” he said, citing the militias of the two largest Shiite political parties, and of the Kurds. “The people feel that the army does not come to serve them, but to punish them. The people hate them.”
The American hope is that the political process under way will succeed, eventually, in forging a broad enough consensus that hard-liners on all sides will be isolated. The odds on that, though slim, seemed to rise a bit with an agreement this month that added 15 Sunni Arabs to the 55-member parliamentary committee charged with drawing up the constitution. But when two of the Sunni men involved in that process were gunned down in Baghdad last week, some other Sunni members pointed to Shiites as the killers, and said the killings showed that Shiite hard-liners wanted no compromise.
Despite these gloomy trends, American commanders have continued to hint at the possibility of at least an initial reduction of the 140,000 American troops stationed here by next summer, contingent on progress in creating effective Iraqi units. Some senior officers have said privately that there is a chance that the pullback will be ordered regardless of what is happening in the war, and that the rationale will be that Iraq – its politicians and its warriors – will ultimately have to find ways of overcoming their divides on their own.
America, these officers seem to be saying, can do only so much, and if Iraqis are hellbent on settling matters violently – at the worst, by civil war – that, in the end, would be their sovereign choice.