Dubai: They were photographs that shocked the world — hooded prisoners standing cruciform, being dragged like leashed dogs, female jailers abusing Muslim men.
These were the images of Abu Ghraib prison, the liberators of Iraq becoming the inquisitors and torturers, abusers of basic rights.
And there was the Haditha massacre, where fully armed gung-ho soldiers killed and wounded scores of unarmed Iraqi civilians.
Or the private mercenary ‘civilian contractors’ of Blackwater who acted with legal impunity, killing those they deemed a threat.
And these scandals were just on the ground once the invading forces entered Iraq. Setting the stage for the invasion in itself involved making US intelligence reports alarming enough to convince a sceptical United Nations that there was indeed enough evidence of weapons of mass destruction and a chemical weapons arsenal.
But what’s more significant is that with all of the abuses, few soldiers or those who make the case for war, actually faced real prison time for their abuses.
When the Abu Ghraib photographs surfaced, US President George W. Bush called them “the biggest mistake of the war.”
But after several investigations and years of hearings and military trials, only 11 soldiers — those that appear in the photographs of the incident — have been found guilty. Their sentences range from a few hours of community service to up to ten years in prison.
A handful of their superiors have been reprimanded, and a Brigadier General has been demoted to Colonel.
The only officer taken to trial, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, a former head of the prison interrogation centre, has been acquitted of any direct links to the abuses. But he was convicted on one count of disobeying an order and issued a reprimand.
When video footage taken just after the slaughter of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha was broadcast, among other things it showed children who had been killed with shots to the head.
The marines, who had just lost a comrade to a roadside bomb, said they were attacking insurgents.
The military portrayal after an investigation detailed the rage but also the confusion of the young US soldiers operating in hostile territory.
Of the four Marines charged with murder two have since had charges withdrawn, while allegations against a third are also expected to be dismissed.
In some cases, soldiers responsible for war crimes face stiff sentences. Three soldiers accused of the rape and murder of a teenage girl and her family in March 2006 in the town of Mahmudiyah received life sentences after pleading guilty.
A fourth soldier who acted as lookout was sentenced to 27 months in jail.
Two soldiers who admitted killing prisoners in cold blood during a raid on an island on the Tigris River were sentenced to 18 years in prison. They insisted they were following orders from their sergeant, who was found guilty of a lesser charge and sentenced to ten years in prison.
During the trial, the soldiers said their unit commander, Colonel Michael Steele, decorated for action in Somalia, ordered them to not take prisoners. Colonel Steele’s speech to the troops was filmed, but upon examination appeared too vague. He was reprimanded and re-assigned.
But for all of the cases brought, there’s still a sense that too few were held accountable for the actions against too many.
“None of the cases brought to date has given a systemic accounting of what happened, why and how far up the chain of command responsibility lies,” said Human Rights First spokeswoman Hina Shamsi. “Trials are a good way of coming at particular individuals’ accountability.
“When people do wrong, they should be held accountable, but they are not the answer to the kind of systemic investigation and accountability that needs to occur.”
— With inputs from AFP