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Troops let sheiks tour prison in effort to gain trust
By Gina Cavallaro | Army Times
BAGHDAD, Iraq - As the group of 15 tribal leaders walked through the shady front yard of Tier 1A at the sprawling Abu Ghraib prison, their gaze was commanded to a row of tiny windows on the top floor of the two-story concrete building.
``Help me! Please get me out of here,'' came the desperate cries of five female detainees. They were being held in the same section of the prison where U.S. soldiers took pictures of themselves abusing Iraqi detainees last fall in a case that has become an international scandal. ``Please, get me out!''
Once inside, the sheiks, dressed in long, flowing robes, climbed the short flight of stairs and listened intently to the women's passionate pleas. Some took notes.
It was an emotional encounter, but it was not why the men were there. The open session was designed to be part of the damage-control process after the prisoner abuse was made public and came the same day as, not far from here, the first U.S. soldier went to court-martial in the case.
The sheiks, all from towns and villages in the region south of Baghdad, were in the prison at the U.S. Army's invitation to take a first-hand look at the notorious complex 10 miles west of the capital city.
``This is the area where the pictures were taken,'' Col. Dave Quantock, commander of the 16th Military Police Brigade out of Fort Bragg, N.C., told the sheiks. The 16th MP Brigade assumed control of the prison on Jan. 31 as part of a regular rotation with the 800th MP Brigade, some of whose members are under investigation for the abuse.
Quantock told the delegation that the Army would turn over the complex to Iraqi control by June 30, the target date for transferring sovereignty for the country. The rest of the building and the 1,000 prisoners housed there, he said, already were under the control of the Iraqi corrections system.
Army Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, assistant division commander of the 1st Armored Division, led the sheiks on the tour and got his first look at the prison.
``All of us are good soldiers. We are very embarrassed by what occurred here. It is not who we are and it is not what we stand for,'' Hertling told the sheiks before they visited the prison's hospital. ``We have seen the trauma and oppression you have been under for the last 35 years. All Iraqi people should be treated with respect and that includes prisoners. We will fix this.''
In the hospital's intermediate care ward, nine detainees lay under blankets on gurneys and talked with the sheiks under the watchful eyes of medical soldiers.
The prison hospital treated a total of more than 130 Iraqi prisoners on April 6 and April 20, when insurgents launched mortar attacks that killed 21 prisoners. One of the sheiks, seeing a prisoner in a wheelchair with an amputated left leg, appealed to Hertling to release him ``because he has already suffered enough.''
``He may be suffering, but he's still a criminal,'' Hertling told the sheik, ``an he was wounded in an attack by the insurgents.''
The hospital staff has been besieged by visitors brought in by the coalition in the wake of the abuse scandal, but said they didn't mind because it gave them an opportunity to show the world that there were good things to be found there, too.
``We have very good morale because we focus on our mission. Ninety percent of the time we don't even know what these guys are here for,'' said Sgt. 1st Class David Allegretti, the hospital's chief ward master and senior medical noncommissioned officer. ``We want people to see, especially with all the things that have gone on, what we're doing for these people.''
The section of the prison where the damning photographs were taken is nearly empty, save for the five women and five men who occupy the adjacent ward. inviting the sheiks to see it for themselves, said Quantock, was an important step toward regaining some hard-won trust.
``Trust is one of the things we have to cultivate and that's what this brings us, an opportunity to build that trust. We want them to see that there's nothing secret going on behind these walls, there's no torture behind these walls,'' Quantock said. ``It's hard to put a smiley face on detention operations."