U.S. reservists accused of prisoner abuse

WASHINGTON -- Six Army reservists shown in graphic photos mistreating and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at a sprawling prison west of Baghdad are assigned to the 372nd Military Police Company based in Cumberland, family members and officials said last night.

In a story that aired last night, CBS's 60 Minutes II aired a series of pictures showing naked Iraqi prisoners who were forced to huddle in a pyramid or simulate sex acts with other prisoners. The pictures showed laughing male and female U.S. soldiers, some giving the thumbs-up sign, and a few were recognized by their Western Maryland neighbors.

In another picture, a hooded prisoner standing on a box appears to be wired to electrodes. The Army told the news program that the prisoner believed he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box.

The six reservists could be court-martialed. The New York Times says three of the six reported last month to be facing preliminary charges have been recommended for court-martial trials. According to the newspaper, a senior Pentagon official said late last night that the three have finished the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a military spokesman in Iraq, told 60 Minutes II that he was "appalled" by the conduct displayed in the photos.

"These are our fellow soldiers," he said. "These are the people we work with every day, and they represent us. They wear the same uniform as us, and they let their fellow soldiers down."

Staff Sgt. Chip Frederick, a member of the 372nd who is among those facing charges, including assaulting prisoners, said he is pleading not guilty. He told CBS that the way the Army ran the Abu Ghraib prison led to the abuse.

"We had no support, no training whatsoever. And I kept asking my chain of command for certain things ... like rules and regulations," said Frederick, in a phone call with CBS from Baghdad. "And it just wasn't happening."

Master Sgt. Mark Van Kirk, a spokesman for the 372nd, which sent more than 150 soldiers to Iraq, was asked last night if the soldiers charged are from the unit. "I understand some of them are," said Van Kirk, declining further comment.

Linda Comer, the Family Readiness Coordinator for the unit, confirmed that Frederick was a member of the 372nd and said others were as well. After watching the CBS story last night, she said, "It's sort of overwhelming. I don't know what it all means. I'm sure it's a black mark on the unit." Still, she said, "Do I know the unit did it? Not from the pictures."

She said her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Keith Comer, was at the prison for a time but was not among those charged. She said her husband told her nothing of the charges, but word spread quickly among the military families.

A Cumberland woman with a relative in the unit said that all six soldiers were from the 372nd, based in Cresaptown, a few miles southwest of Cumberland. She said that at least a few of the six lived in or around Cumberland, a small city surrounded by mountains in rural Western Maryland.

She said that the 372nd had been attached to the 800th Military Police Brigade, based in Uniondale, N.Y., which was in command of soldiers from various units guarding Abu Ghraib prison.

"A lot of us have known about the arrests and the court-martial, but everyone knew to keep their mouths shut," said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of hurting her relative's military career.

She said that some local families had hoped that early reports mentioning only the 800th military police unit would keep reporters from discovering its connection to the 372nd. "It only takes one person to spoil the reputation of the whole" unit, she said of the desire to keep the connection secret.

She said that one soldier whose picture was on 60 Minutes II last night -- giving a thumbs-up sign next to an Iraqi prisoner -- had her photo displayed at a local Wal-Mart as part of a Veterans Day display.

In January, the top ground commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, ordered a criminal investigation into the allegations that the Iraqi detainees had been abused. A senior Pentagon official said authorities had been alerted in the past few days to the possible abuse of detainees and were taking the allegations "very seriously."

Last month, the Army announced that 17 soldiers in Iraq, including a brigadier general, had been removed from duty after charges of mistreating Iraqi prisoners, although there were no details of the courts-martial. Army officials identified her as Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski, the commander of the 800th Brigade, according to the Associated Press.

The Army said that all those facing courts-martial are in Iraq, though there were no details on the status of their cases.

Frederick, identified in the broadcast as a corrections officer from Virginia, sent letters and e-mail messages home that offer clues to problems at the prison, according to 60 Minutes II.

He wrote that he was helping the interrogators: "Military intelligence has encouraged and told us 'Great job.'"

"They usually don't allow others to watch them interrogate. But since they like the way I run the prison, they have made an exception," said one excerpt.

"We help getting them to talk with the way we handle them," said another. "We've had a very high rate with our style of getting them to break. They usually end up breaking within hours."

Gary Myers, an attorney defending Frederick, told 60 Minutes II that the soldiers should never have been charged, because of the failure of commanders to provide proper training and standards.

"The elixir of power, the elixir of believing that you're helping the CIA, for God's sake, when you're from a small town in Virginia, that's intoxicating," said Myers. "And so, good guys sometimes do things believing that they are being of assistance and helping a just cause."

Frederick told CBS he didn't see a copy of the Geneva Conventions' rules for handling prisoners of war until after he was charged.

Frederick said far too few soldiers were on hand for the number of prisoners: "There was, when I left, there was over 900. And there was only five soldiers, plus two noncommissioned officers, in charge for those 900 -- over 900 inmates."

Kimmitt, the military spokesman, was asked by CBS about understaffing.

"That doesn't condone individual acts of criminal behavior no matter how tired we are," he said.

The 372nd had been scheduled to return home beginning this month after a year in Iraq but was ordered to remain in the country for up to three months to provide security for military and civilian convoys.

Since arriving in Iraq last spring, the reservists performed law enforcement duties around the city of Hillah for six months before dividing into three sections to provide escort duty, military police work around Baghdad and security at Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. Officials were uncertain where the 372nd would be based for its convoy duty.

Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.