BAGHDAD -- The national guardsman peering through the long-range scope of his rifle was startled by what he saw unfolding in the walled compound below.
From his post several stories above ground level, he watched as men in plainclothes beat blindfolded and bound prisoners in the enclosed grounds of the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
He immediately radioed for help. Soon after, a team of Oregon Army National Guard soldiers swept into the yard and found dozens of Iraqi detainees who said they had been beaten, starved and deprived of water for three days.
In a nearby building, the soldiers counted dozens more prisoners and what appeared to be torture devices -- metal rods, rubber hoses, electrical wires and bottles of chemicals. Many of the Iraqis, including one identified as a 14-year-old boy, had fresh welts and bruises across their back and legs.
The soldiers disarmed the Iraqi jailers, moved the prisoners into the shade, released their handcuffs and administered first aid. Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson of Albany, Ore., the highest ranking American at the scene, radioed for instructions.
But in a move that frustrated and infuriated the guardsmen, Hendrickson's superior officers told him to return the prisoners to their abusers and immediately withdraw. It was June 29 -- Iraq's first official day as a sovereign country since the U.S.-led invasion.
The incident, the first known case of human rights abuses in newly sovereign Iraq, is at the heart of the American dilemma here.
In handing over power, U.S. officials gave Iraqis authority to run their own institutions -- even if they made mistakes. But officials understand that the United States will be held responsible when the new Iraqi authorities stumble.
"Iraqis want us to respect their sovereignty, but the problem is we will be blamed for leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse," said Michael Rubin, a former adviser to the interim Iraqi government who is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "We did not generally put good people in."
An Oregon guardsman who witnessed the day's events, Capt. Jarrell Southall, provided The Oregonian with a written account of the incident. Other guardsmen interviewed in Iraq corroborated Southall's account on the condition that their names not be used.
The U.S. Embassy in Iraq confirmed the incident occurred and disclosed for the first time that the United States raised questions about the June 29 "brutality" with Iraq's interior minister.
The embassy declined to say what response was received in the meeting between the minister and James Jeffrey, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Iraq, saying it would be "inappropriate" to discuss "details of those diplomatic and confidential conversations."
The embassy, in a written statement, said U.S. soldiers are "compelled by the law of land warfare and core values to stop willful and unnecessary use of physical violence on prisoners." The U.S. soldiers involved in the incident, it said, "acted professionally and calmly to ease tensions and defend prisoners who needed help."
The June 29 confrontation between U.S. troops and Iraqi officials at the Interior Ministry has been mentioned in news accounts in the United States and Britain. But details about the prisoners' injuries, the actions of the Oregon Guard and the high-level American decision to leave the injured detainees in the hands of Iraqis has not been previously reported.
For their part, the Oregon guardsmen of the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry left the Interior Ministry confused over their roles in the murky job of nation building. Hendrickson, a Corvallis police officer, refused to discuss details of the incident but said:
"Oregonians should be proud of the actions taken by the 2/162 on June 29."
The Oregonians intervene
When U.S.-led forces drove Saddam Hussein from power in April 2003, the Iraqi army was disbanded, and the country's social order collapsed. Looting was common and petty crime skyrocketed. Local thugs settled scores and exacted bribes with impunity. The rise in crime, coupled with the wave of car bombings and kidnappings, undermined the legitimacy of the provisional government.
In late June, on the eve of the transition of power, Iraq's prime minister in waiting, Ayad Allawi, announced a crackdown on crime. Police and security forces rounded up about 150 people in a seedy east Baghdad neighborhood. Many Iraqis cheered the action, which netted a collection of immigrants and poor Iraqis.
The Iraqi police took those arrested to a compound on the grounds of the Interior Ministry.
On the morning of June 29, Oregon guardsmen set off from their base near the Interior Ministry on routine neighborhood patrols.
Lookouts climbed towers ringing the base, and scouts took their usual positions in hidden vantage points around the neighborhoods of east Baghdad, looking for threats and signs of trouble.
One of the scouts posted in a tall building squinted through his rifle scope at the courtyard adjoining the Interior Ministry. He saw a man in plainclothes standing over a handcuffed and blindfolded prisoner. The guardsman watched through his rifle scope as the man reared back and brought what appeared to be a stick or metal rod down on the prisoner, who was lying on the ground.
The scout took pictures through his scope and considered his options.
The Oregon guardsman did not speak for this story. But others who spoke with the soldier said he radioed battalion headquarters to report the beating. According to one soldier, he said he would begin shooting the Iraqi guards if someone didn't intervene.
That message was passed to Lt. Col. Hendrickson, the battalion's commander, who gathered soldiers from the unit's headquarters company and a translator. Soon after, Hendrickson led a procession of Humvees from the guards' Patrol Base Volunteer to the Iraqi compound.
The squad of armed and armored Oregon guardsmen pushed into the detention yard "basically unchallenged," according to the written account by Southall, a Newark, Calif., middle school teacher who serves with the Oregon Guard.
Southall said he was speaking as an individual and not as a military officer. Senior Army officers have instructed soldiers not to discuss the incident.
According to Southall and other soldiers, the guardsmen began by separating the prisoners from the Iraqi policemen.
Some of the detainees said they had been held for three days with little water and no food. "Many of these prisoners had bruises and cuts and belt or hose marks all over," Southall said. At least one had a gunshot wound to the knee.
"I witnessed prisoners who were barely able to walk," Southall said.
The Oregon soldiers moved the prisoners into the shade of a nearby wall, cut them loose and handed out water bottles. They administered first aid when necessary and gave intravenous fluids to at least one dehydrated prisoner.
At about that time, U.S. military police arrived on the scene and began disarming the Iraqi policemen and moving them farther away from the prisoners, according to Southall.
Hendrickson demanded through the interpreter to speak with someone in charge of the Iraqi policemen. Two men came forward.
"One was a well-dressed obese man who told LTC Hendrickson that there was no prisoner abuse and that everything was under control and they were trying to conduct about 150 investigations as soon as possible," Southall said. The other, smaller man, who Southall said identified himself as "Maj. Ahmed," claimed he was responsible for outside security only and that those responsible for any prisoner abuse were inside the building.
Hendrickson then led some of the Oregon guardsmen inside to investigate further.
"There were several rooms within the building," Southall said. "One room, about 20 by 20 feet squared, contained even more prisoners, all in the same sad shape as the prisoners found in the outer area. There were about 78 prisoners crowded in this little room with no available furniture, no air conditioner, no water or food or restrooms available."
Southall said one prisoner claimed the Iraqi police arrested him at a market and confiscated his passport even though he had "paid a tremendous bribe" to the arresting officer. Others, many of whom appeared to be non-Arab shopkeepers and workers, said they had been detained for lack of proper identification.
The Oregon guardsmen walked into the adjoining office, where they saw several Iraqis sitting around a table smoking cigarettes.
"There was a tightly bound and gagged prisoner crumpled at the feet of these men," Southall said. "There was a recently eaten tray of food . . . and a nice water cooler that was standing upright in good order. This room was heavily air conditioned, which was a stark contrast to the rooms that contained prisoners."
The men in the room said they had not beaten anyone. They asserted, however, "that these prisoners were all dangerous criminals and most were thieves, users of marijuana and other types of bad people," according to Southall's account.
As U.S. soldiers continued to fan out in the building, they found more bound-and-gagged prisoners, and "hoses, broken lamps and chemicals of some variety," which could have been used as torture devices, Southall said.
Hendrickson radioed up the chain of command in the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, relaying what he had seen and asking for instructions. As the soldiers waited, Southall said, the Iraqi policemen began to get "defiant and hostile" toward the Americans.
It wasn't long before the order came: Stand down. Return the prisoners to the Iraqi authorities and leave the detention yard.
That order infuriated the Oregon guardsmen, who viewed themselves as protectors of the abused prisoners. Nonetheless, the soldiers obeyed. None of the soldiers interviewed for this story said which U.S. general gave the order.
In the preceding weeks, the guardsmen had been bombarded with images of Americans abusing Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib detention center. Those images, which continue to reverberate through the Arab world, had been replayed frequently on the televisions at Patrol Base Volunteer.
The guardsmen who later gave their account of that day said they wanted Americans to know about the actions they took to protect unresisting prisoners -- and that they were ordered by U.S. military officials to walk away.
"The guys were really upset," said one soldier. Said another who talked to them immediately afterward, "They were really moved by what they'd seen."
Hendrickson referred questions about the episode to Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond of the 1st Cavalry. The story of what happened June 29 "needs to be told," Hammond acknowledged when interviewed by The Oregonian. But he said that, "because of the nature of this issue, it's being handled at a higher level than me."
What happened to the prisoners after the Americans departed is not clear. Guardsmen interviewed for this story said they've watched the detention facility closely since then, and that many of the prisoners were released soon after the raid on the detention facility.
The soldiers said they have not seen any further prisoner abuse occur there.
On July 12, Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi ordered another sweep of poor, crime-ridden east Baghdad neighborhoods. Afterward, Iraq said Allawi's crackdown had netted more than 500 "killers, robbers, car thieves and kidnappers."
U.S. officials say how Iraq handles the complaints about the roundups will be a test of the country's fragile institutions. The new Iraqi constitution bans "torture in all its forms, physical or mental," as well as "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."
The country now has a minister of human rights. Government ministries have also assigned inspectors general to examine allegations of wrongdoing.
The U.S. Embassy's statement cast the United States as a supporting player in building a government that is accountable. "The role of the United States," it said, "is to assist the sovereign Iraqi government as it continues on its path toward providing its citizens the opportunities and protections available through a free and representative society."
But Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the United States gave the Iraqis sovereignty over a country that lacked functioning institutions and faced daunting security problems.
"We didn't want to put in enough forces to defeat the insurgency," Kagan said. "Now we hand it to the Iraqis, and we're surprised at how they do it?"
Stephen Engelberg of The Oregonian contributed to this report.
© 2004 Knight-Ridder