By Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald (Scotland). Published Oct. 2, 2005
For the first time, American soldiers who personally tortured Iraqi prisoners have come forward to give testimony to human rights organisations about crimes they committed.
Three soldiers – a captain and two sergeants – from the 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mercury near Fallujah in Iraq have told Human Rights Watch how prisoners were tortured both as a form of stress relief and as a way of breaking them for interrogation sessions.
These latest revelations about the torture of Iraqi detainees come at a time when the Bush administration thought it could draw a line under the scandal of Abu Ghraib following last week’s imprisonment of Private Lynndie England for her now infamous role in the abuse of prisoners and the photographing of torture.
The 82nd Airborne soldiers at FOB Mercury earned the nickname "The Murderous Maniacs" from local Iraqis and took the moniker as a badge of honour.
The soldiers referred to their Iraqi captives as PUCs – persons under control – and used the expressions "f***ing a PUC" and "smoking a PUC" to refer respectively to torture and forced physical exertion.
One sergeant provided graphic descriptions to Human Rights Watch investigators about acts of abuse carried out both by himself and others. He now says he regrets his actions. His regiment arrived at FOB Mercury in August 2003. He said: " The first interrogation that I observed was the first time I saw a PUC pushed to the brink of a stroke or a heart attack. At first I was surprised, like, ‘This is what we are allowed to do?’"
The troops would put sand-bags on prisoners’ heads and cuff them with plastic zip-ties. The sergeant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said if he was told that prisoners had been found with homemade bombs, "we would f*** them up, put them in stress positions and put them in a tent and withhold water … It was like a game. You know, how far could you make this guy go before he passes out or just collapses on you?"
He explained: "To ‘f*** a PUC’ means to beat him up. We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day. To ‘smoke’ someone is to put them in stress positions until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. That happened every day.
"Some days we would just get bored so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. We did that for amusement."
Iraqis were "smoked" for up to 12 hours. That would entail being made to hold five-gallon water cans in both hands with out-stretched arms, made to do press-ups and star jumps. At no time, during these sessions, would they get water or food apart from dry biscuits. Sleep deprivation was also "a really big thing", the sergeant added.
To prepare a prisoner for interrogation, military intelligence officers ordered that the Iraqis be deprived of sleep. The sergeant said he and other soldiers did this by "banging on their cages, crashing them into the cages, kicking them, kicking dirt, yelling".
They’d also pour cold water over prisoners and then cover them in sand and mud. On some occasions, prisoners were tortured for revenge. "If we were on patrol and caught a guy that killed our captain or my buddy last week… man, it is human nature," said the sergeant – but on other occasions, he confessed, it was for "sport".
Many prisoners were completely innocent and had no part in the insurgency, he said – but intelligence officers had told soldiers to exhaust the prisoners to make them co-operate. He said he now knew their behaviour was "wrong", but added "this was the norm". "Trends were accepted. Leadership failed to provide clear guidance so we just developed it. They wanted intel [intelligence]. As long as no PUC came up dead, it happened. "
According to Captain Ian Fishback of the 82nd Airborne Division, army doctrine had been broken by allowing Iraqis who were captured by them to remain in their custody, instead of being sent "behind the lines" to trained military police.
Pictures of abuse at FOB Mercury were destroyed by soldiers after the scandal of Abu Ghraib broke.
However, Fishback told his company commander about the abuse and was told "remember the honour of the unit is at stake" and "don’t expect me to go to bat for you on this issue if you take this up". Fishback then told his battalion commander who advised him to speak to the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office, which deals with issues of military law.
The JAG told Fishback that the Geneva Conventions "are a grey area". When Fishback described some of the abuses he had witnessed the JAG said it was "within" Geneva Conventions.
Fishback added: " If I go to JAG and JAG cannot give me clear guidance about what I should stop and what I should allow to happen, how is an NCO or a private expected to act appropriately?"
Fishback, a West Point graduate who has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, spent 17 months trying to raise the matter with his superiors. When he attempted to approach representatives of US Senators John McCain and John Warner about the abuse, he was told that he would not be granted a pass to meet them on his day off.
Fishback says that army investigators were currently more interested in finding out the identity of the other soldiers who spoke to Human Rights Watch than dealing with the systemic abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Colonel Joseph Curtin, a senior army spokesman at the Pentagon, said: "We do take the captain seriously and are following up on this."
Fishback has now been removed from special forces training because of the army investigation.