WASHINGTON - When in 1970 'Life' magazine published photos taken by Senator Tom Harkin, then a lowly congressional aide, of the infamous ''tiger cages'' in which suspected Viet Cong men, women and even children were kept secretly -- and crippled -- by the U.S.-run South Vietnamese prison system, it was another nail in the coffin of a conflict on which most of the U.S. public had already soured.
Judging from the outrage expressed here so far, the broadcast and publication of the photos of physical and sexual abuse of prisoners by their U.S. guards in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad are also having a demoralizing effect, but the impact on the broader U.S. ''war on terrorism'' may be felt more acutely abroad.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen Joseph Biden, has described the photos and the abuses depicted in them as ''the single most significant undermining act that's occurred in a decade in that region of the world in terms of standing'', and called on President George W Bush to go further than his statement Friday that he felt ''deep disgust'' for what had taken place.
The 'New York Times' called the disclosures ''an enormous victory'' for Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist group. ''The invasion of Iraq, which has already begun to seem like a bad dream in so many ways, cannot get much more nightmarish than this''.
And, after reviewing reaction from various media in the Arab world, Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan mused, ''I really wonder whether, with the emergence of these photos, the game isn't over for the Americans in Iraq. Is it realistic, after the bloody siege of Fallujah and the Shiite uprising of early April, and in the wake of these revelations, to think that the U.S. can still win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi Arab public''? he asked.
The photos, which show the taunting by female guards of naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners, who are also arranged in explicitly sexual positions, were first broadcast by CBS TV's 'Sixty Minutes II' last Thursday.
They, as well as an internal report by a two-star general about abuses committed by prison guards and military intelligence, were also the subject of a lengthy article in the 'New Yorker' magazine by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
The 53-page report, by Army Major Gen Antonio Taguba, called for disciplinary action against 10 members of the Army, including a brigadier general, a colonel and two civilian contractors hired by the military to help conduct interrogations, and possible criminal prosecutions against at least six people.
According to Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Gen Richard Myers, the abuses were isolated and committed by ''just a handful'' of soldiers, and should not be seen as representative of the military's overall performance.
But Taguba's report, which was also obtained by the 'Los Angeles Times', described the abuses as ''systemic and illegal'' and suggested that the problem might be far-reaching.
Taguba found that, in apparent violation of army regulations, interrogators from military intelligence asked military police (MPs) guards to ''set physical and mental conditions for the favorable interrogation of witnesses''.
Those directives resulted in the performance of what Taguba found were ''numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses'' committed against detainees, including ''punching, slapping and kicking detainees; videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees; forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing; forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time; forcing naked male detainees to wear women's underwear; (and) forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped''.
Those abuses were documented by direct evidence, including photographs, while Taguba also found ''credible'' evidence of threatening male detainees with rape, sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and ''perhaps a broomstick'', and threatening detainees with a pistol, among other abuses.
The report also noted the existence of ''ghost detainees'' -- prisoners who were shifted from unit to unit within Abu Ghraib prison so as to be hidden during visits by representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).
While Taguba's report did not directly address abuses committed by prison authorities outside Iraq, he suggested that similar practices might have been used against other prisoners both in Iraq and elsewhere.
In that connection, his report noted that a team from the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba visited Iraq eight months ago to see how better intelligence could be acquired from detainees held there. The team, which was headed by the Guantanamo commander, recommended that MP guards act as ''an enabler for interrogation''.
In his report, Taguba opposed the idea, asserting, ''there is a strong argument that the intelligence value of detainees held at (Guantanamo) is different than that of the detainees/internees held at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities in Iraq''.
More than 60 percent of the detainees at Abu Ghraib, according to Taguba, were innocent civilians who had simply been caught up in sweeps and were thus of little or no intelligence value.
The notion that humiliating practices against prisoners might be practiced beyond Abu Ghraib was endorsed by Amnesty International (AI) on Friday. ''Our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident'', the group said in a statement, noting ''frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by coalition forces during the past year''.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also suggested the behavior of the U.S. soldiers in the photos ''suggests they felt they had nothing to hide from their superiors''.
The New York-based group also pointed to the Pentagon's failure to date to respond to allegations of serious abuses committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, including beatings, severe sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold and at least two deaths in custody.
''It's clear that the United States has not taken the issue of prisoner abuse seriously enough'', said HRW director, Kenneth Roth.
Myers admitted Sunday that he had asked CBS not to air the photographs the week before the network actually broadcast the program, particularly in light of the tensions in Iraq and the Arab world set off by the bloody U.S. siege of Fallujah. But after Arab media obtained some of the photos, CBS went ahead.
To the consternation of a number of analysts, Myers also admitted Sunday that he had not yet read the Taguba report, despite the seriousness of its findings. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also said through a spokesman that he also had neither received nor been briefed on it.
''The fact that they hadn't read it indicates how low down the totem pole these issues were for them until, of course, it hit the press'', Hersh told CNN on Monday. ''I really think that's an incredible example of very bad leadership''.
Copyright © 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service.