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My view: To Iraqis, prisoner abuse story is largely a non-issue

Published: Sunday, May 9 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

It is Friday, May 7, 2004, the Muslim "weekend."

And the news here is apparently much different than there. From my early morning looks at the news channels, it looks like the "prisoner story" is dominating the national news. It appears to us to be taking on all the signs of an overreaction to a very negative and unfortunate incident.

It's amazing to us that people are calling for Rumsfeld's resignation or firing. Interestingly, it's mostly a non-event for most of the Iraqis with whom we work or meet. A typical reaction came from one of our key staff I'll call Abdul. He has a degree in English literature, is in his mid-30s, served in the Iraqi Army during the Iraq-Iran War, has a side business in women's cosmetics, and works with us in the coordination of several of our social institutions. He is somewhat typical of the many more educated Iraqis.

When I questioned him about how most Iraqis view the prisoner abuse story, his first reaction was a startled stare. He didn't really even connect with my question. When I explained more fully, he said, "Well, actually, sir, to be quite honest with you, we think that it represents a small dot on a large piece of paper. We know that the hearts of almost all Americans are good and they do so much good for our people. And remember, sir, we lived under Saddam for nearly 30 years. To be quite honest with you, sir, we believe that the media is not fair and has not been fair for this entire war. After all, we Iraqis watch every despicable act committed by terrorists as they are glorified by Al Jazeera."

Nearly all our translators and Iraqi staff indicate basically the same thing. Many Iraqis, even those who have televisions and watch Al Jazeera, are mostly nonplussed by the prisoner story.

I do not mean to excuse or justify these acts in any way. It is an obvious black eye and tarnishes all that we're attempting to do here. The overwhelming consensus among the military working here in the Palace is abhorrence and an attitude that the enlisted personnel and their commanders ought to be dealt with appropriately and severely after a full investigation. Most are concerned that this is further tarnishing unfairly the military image back in the states, painting broad strokes across the entire canvas. I can tell you from my own experience that, for the most part, this is the best trained and dedicated group of people who could ever possibly serve the United States.

But Abdul is right. We just wish this could be kept in proper perspective. What we are thinking about often doesn't make the news. Many of you, I know, are interested in what we're doing in Fallujah and Najaf, Sadr's current headquarters. In Fallujah, it's not a matter of if, but when we eventually go in. We currently are working with an Iraqi general who is standing up an all Iraqi force to patrol the city. We hope to neutralize the opposition as much as possible, thereby preventing collateral damage. Eventually, however, it will be necessary for the Marines to regain control over the city.

The same can be said for Najaf but for slightly different reasons. The Ayatollah Sistani has made it clear that he does not want to see Coalition Forces enter the city, one of Shi'as holiest sites. As each day passes, however, Sadr appears palpably to lose followers and influence. He is still a danger, however, and poses a threat. Yesterday, some of his militia attacked one of our coalition convoys close to Najaf: the score was 40 to 0 in favor of the coalition. He's probably gradually and painfully "getting it." Leadership sometimes requires great patience.

This is one of those times.


Robert C. Gross, a Utahn, is a senior adviser of Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

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