BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The marks on Firas al-Sammarrai’s body from when he says U.S. soldiers repeatedly electrocuted him are one reason he can’t forget his abuse at their hands, even if other Iraqis want to move on.
U.S. President Barack Obama this month blocked the release of new detainee abuse photos on fears they may trigger more attacks against the U.S. military. The move enflamed Western opinion, but elicited little response in Iraq.
After years of bombings and sectarian slayings many Iraqis say they have seen worse, and some add the release of the photos has much to do with the U.S. image abroad as Obama attempts to mend ties with the Muslim world.
He is due to give a major speech in Egypt on June 4.
Sammarrai, a senior Foreign Ministry official under Saddam Hussein, said he was stripped naked, had cold water thrown over him in winter and was repeatedly beaten and electrocuted.
He says there are still pits in his elbows and knees where the electrodes were attached.
“Iraqis at times are trapped between wanting to forget and wanting to remember,” he told Reuters by phone from Sweden, where he fled after being released. He found it hard to describe what had happened to him.
“They want to forget so they can move on, but at the same time they don’t want to forget because it was such a scandal.
“But deciding to cover the photos up in order to manipulate world opinion ... I believe this is another crime against the Iraqi people and humanity in general.”
Mohammed Ali, 23, is another person who says he was abused by U.S. military. Speaking from Falluja in Anbar province, he recalled hearing U.S. soldiers take photos while he was beaten, a bag shoved over his head. He needed two operations to repair damage to his stomach, he said.
“I was sat on the floor. (They) would beat me two at a time. They put cigarettes out on me and threw cold water on me. That lasted for two days,” he said.
“I think it’s better for the pictures to be released so those in the Middle East and the West can see what happened.”
Many Iraqis who never faced alleged U.S. abuse greeted Obama’s decision to block the release of new photos of torture with a shrug.
“I think the pictures won’t affect Iraqis, but it will affect world opinion. The methods of the Americans are well known to Iraqis, who see worse than this every day,” said Hameed Fadhil, an engineer out with his family in a Baghdad park.
Iraqis have only recently started to make forays into parks after violence fell sharply over the last year. Some feared the photos would risk reversing the fragile security gains.
“It’s the first time I’ve heard of more photos. It’s old now, it’s over ... The people that want to destabilise Iraq will use these pictures, the rest of us just want to get by and finish with this matter,” said Radwan Uday, a shopkeeper.
Pictures of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison, where Saddam Hussein used to have his opponents tortured, shocked the world in 2004. They included inmates being threatened by dogs and forced into sexually degrading poses.
“When you see body parts scattered after a bomb, a picture of a man being beaten is a simple thing,” said Imad al-Sabty, sat in Baghdad’s Kheyteh coffee shop.
While Iraqis may now be numb to such images, some said there would be a stronger reaction if, as reported in Britain’s Daily Telegraph this week, photos blocked by Obama had included scenes of rape and sexual abuse. The Pentagon denied the report.
“We can take anything except an assault on our honour. That will shake this country,” said Zahra Monem, out shopping.
After Saddam’s brutal rule and six years of U.S. occupation, torture is nothing new to some. Saddam’s security men were infamous for it, including hanging people from ceilings and removing fingernails.
Obama’s refusal to release more photos barely registered in Iraq’s media, which this week reported hundreds of cases of abuse against Iraqis by Iraq’s own security forces.
“People are not bothered. They’re unemployed and struggling to get by. Everyone knows about this. Torture has become normal here. I’m 66 and I’ve seen it all now,” said Abu Qasim.
Harith al-Ubaidi, a member of parliament’s human rights committee, said he understood why Iraqis struggling with a lack of jobs and services might ignore more photos of abuse, but he contested Obama’s reasoning for holding them back.
“This is an absolutely invalid excuse. If armed groups could exert more pressure, they wouldn’t wait for the photos.”
In Ubaidi’s view Obama is trying to avoid whipping up Arab opinion as he attempts to repair U.S.-Middle East relations, damaged under former President George W. Bush, and was also protecting interrogators guilty of abuse.
Obama has said CIA agents who followed legal guidance on interrogation would not be prosecuted, but left the door open to prosecuting Bush-era officials who developed the policies.
Ubaidi said Obama’s overtures to Muslims in Egypt next week are likely to fail if he is seen as continuing Bush’s policy of secrecy over detainees, or as blocking efforts to hold those who abused prisoners accountable.
Laila al-Khafaji, another member of Iraq’s parliament, said she preferred to forget the past.
“The page of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was turned a long time ago and it’s time to forget. What’s the point of reminding us of these pains?”
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Sattar Rahim in Sadr City and Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja, Editing by Michael Christie and Sara Ledwith