BAGHDAD, Iraq - Court-martial proceedings against Maryland-based U.S. soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners are to begin here today, but among many Iraqis the verdict on the legal process is already in: It's a sham.
Their evidence has little to do with what went on inside Abu Ghraib prison and other facilities and more to do with conditions outside those walls more than a year after American promises of a new Iraq were made: Government buildings are still charred shells, clogged streets are still without traffic signals, gasoline supplies are limited, hospitals are filled with maimed Iraqis, morgues are overflowing with the dead.
Beyond that, many Iraqis doubt punishment will be directed where they think it belongs - much higher in the chain of command than the low-ranking soldiers charged in the beating and abuse of detainees.
"The Americans have lied about everything - about helping Iraq," said Jaleel Atwan, 44, covered in sweat as he arranged fruit at his market in Baghdad. "We know now that Americans are not people who tell the truth. Tell me, why should Iraqis believe anything the Americans say?"
Today, three reservists from the 372nd Military Police Company, based near Cumberland, are scheduled to appear at the Baghdad Convention Center for a military proceeding in which their attorneys are expected to ask that the charges be dropped or, short of that, the trials be moved. A fourth soldier faces charges at Fort Bragg, N.C., beginning tomorrow.
U.S. officials, including President Bush, have said the trials will show that the United States does not tolerate such behavior.
In the markets of Baghdad, though, and on the city's street corners, the lack of faith in the proceedings stems from a general distrust of the United States because of promises unfulfilled. The promised liberation from dictator Saddam Hussein has come true, but for many Iraqis, day-to-day conditions are more difficult and dangerous. Daily bombings and attacks have left dozens of civilians dead in recent weeks.
The courts-martial seem unlikely to placate many Iraqis. Instead, they are likely to be another source of mistrust and a reminder of the humiliation, abuse and death that Iraqis faced at the hands of Americans in a prison first made notorious as Hussein's most brutal torture and execution facility.
"It's a fake trial, to make the Americans look better to the world," said Saad Na'shat, 52, a civil affairs employee. "They are taking young soldiers who were following orders and say they will punish them. But they will not be punished in 100 years, and the people who gave the orders will never be punished in 1 million years."
Attorneys for the soldiers facing court-martial are expected to make arguments echoing such complaints, heard repeatedly on the streets of Baghdad: The soldiers are paying the price for decisions made at much higher levels.
Among those facing charges are two of the soldiers said to be ringleaders for the abuses, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. Frederick II and Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr.
Frederick, 37, who in civilian life is a guard at Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Va., is accused of forcing Iraqi detainees to masturbate in front of soldiers and their cameras and of punching one so hard that the man required medical attention to be certain he was not in cardiac arrest.
He is also the soldier, the military says, who attached wires to a detainee's hands and genitals and made him stand on a box, creating a picture that has been published around the world.
The sergeant's family and attorney, Gary Myers, say Frederick is being made a scapegoat after following orders from military intelligence officers to "soften up" detainees so they would be more willing to provide information.
Graner, 35, is accused of supervising much of the abusive behavior and was among the most feared of the American guards at Abu Ghraib, according to military investigators.
His face has become recognizable from published photographs of him standing, arms folded, over a pile of naked Iraqi men and from another of him flashing a thumbs-up as detainees were piled into a pyramid.
He faces a charge, among others, of committing an indecent act by watching detainees commit a sexual act. And military investigators have said that among the evidence collected is a video of him having consensual sex with Pfc. Lynndie R. England, who faces proceedings at Fort Bragg, N.C., tomorrow.
Graner's family has said that he, too, is being made a scapegoat and that he did nothing he was not ordered to do.
"Just think of what was going on at the time and what a few reservists from the hills were asked to do," said Paul Bergrin, an attorney representing Sgt. Javal Davis, the third soldier scheduled to appear in court here this week. "You have your military friends being killed one after another, you have Saddam Hussein still out there somewhere, and you have virtually every single senior military officer - not only in Iraq but also in the Pentagon - telling these guys to loosen the detainees up, to hood them, to get the damn intelligence."
Bergrin said Davis, who attended Morgan State University in Baltimore for a time, was following orders from military intelligence. Several military intelligence officers have come forward in recent weeks to say that colleagues in their units, in charge of interrogations, encouraged the abuses.
"So now you have the intelligence guys, the CIA guys, saying this is all right," Bergrin said. "Do you think the answer is, when this all gets out, to hold a kid like this responsible?"
U.S. authorities have made a point of holding court proceedings for the soldiers in Baghdad, where the Iraqi people can follow the trials and see the American justice system at work, though cameras have been excluded from the courtroom.
A hearing in N.C.
For now, that has left only England, who is six months' pregnant with Graner's child, as the public face of the abuse scandal in the United States.
England, 21, of Fort Ashby, W.Va., was transferred this year to Fort Bragg, where military officers will conduct an Article 32 hearing beginning tomorrow to determine whether she should face a court-martial.
England, shown in photographs from Abu Ghraib holding a leash tied to the neck of a naked prisoner and pointing at the genitals of another, faces charges that include conspiring to mistreat Iraqi prisoners and assaulting detainees.
The young soldier has become a polarizing figure. While the photos that show her smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign over naked inmates outraged the nation, her family and friends insist that England was following orders from officers, none of whom face criminal charges.
"That's not the type of person she is," said her sister, Jessica Kleinstiner, the day England was charged. "If any one of you would need money for anything, my sister would give you money without wanting money in return - that's how she is."
England's Article 32 hearing, roughly equivalent to a preliminary hearing in civilian courts, is expected to last two to three days at the sprawling base in Fayetteville, and will be the first chance for the public to hear a detailed account of the events that led to the criminal charges.
England's attorneys will be allowed to cross-examine witnesses, but she is not expected to testify. In her only public interview, broadcast by a Denver television station, England contended that the abuses and photos were ordered by superiors. Asked who gave the orders, she said only: "Persons in my chain of command."
In Baghdad, Haider Abbas, a 38-year-old truck driver, said he is surprised that U.S. soldiers have been charged but will never believe that those truly responsible will be punished.
Even if the soldiers are sentenced to prison, he said, as soon as they are returned to the United States they will be freed.
"I think they will be freed in a deal," Abbas said. "The deal is, 'Don't say who told you to do it, and after the big show you can run free.'"
Sun staff writer Gail Gibson reported from Fort Bragg, N.C.