Two years after "Mission Accomplished", whatever moral stature the United States could claim at the end of its invasion of Iraq has long ago been squandered in the torture and abuse and deaths at Abu Ghraib. That the symbol of Saddam Hussein's brutality should have been turned by his own enemies into the symbol of their own brutality is a singularly ironic epitaph for the whole Iraq adventure. We have all been contaminated by the cruelty of the interrogators and the guards and prison commanders.
But this is not only about Abu Ghraib. There are clear and proven connections now between the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the cruelty at the American's Bagram prison in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Curiously, General Janis Karpinski, the only senior US officer facing charges over Abu Ghraib, admitted to me a year earlier when I visited the prison that she had been at Guantanamo Bay, but that at Abu Ghraib she was not permitted to attend interrogations - which seems very odd.
A vast quantity of evidence has now been built up on the system which the Americans have created for mistreating and torturing prisoners. I have interviewed a Palestinian who gave me compelling evidence of anal rape with wooden poles at Bagram - by Americans, not by Afghans.
Many of the stories now coming out of Guantanamo - the sexual humiliation of Muslim prisoners, their shackling to seats in which they defecate and urinate, the use of pornography to make Muslim prisoners feel impure, the female interrogators who wear little clothing (or, in one case, pretended to smear menstrual blood on a prisoner's face) - are increasingly proved true. Iraqis whom I have questioned at great length over many hours, speak with candor of terrifying beatings from military and civilian interrogators, not just in Abu Ghraib but in US bases elsewhere in Iraq.
At the American camp outside Fallujah, prisoners are beaten with full plastic water bottles which break, cutting the skin. At Abu Ghraib, prison dogs have been used to frighten and to bite prisoners.
How did this culture of filth start in America's "war on terror"? The institutionalized injustice which we have witnessed across the world, the vile American "renditions" in which prisoners are freighted to countries where they can be roasted, electrified or, in Uzbekistan, cooked alive in fat? As Bob Herbert wrote in The New York Times, what seemed mind-boggling when the first pictures emerged from Abu Ghraib is now routine, typical of the abuse that has "permeated the Bush administration's operations".
Amnesty, in a chilling 200-page document in October, traced the permeation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's memos into the prisoner interrogation system and the weasel-worded authorization of torture. In August , for example, only a few months after Bush spoke under the "Mission Accomplished" banner, a Pentagon report stated that "in order to respect the President's inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign, [the US law prohibiting torture] must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander- in-Chief authority." What does that mean other than permission from Bush to torture?
A 2004 Pentagon report uses words designed to allow interrogators to use cruelty without fear of court actions: "Even if the defendant knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent [to be guilty of torture] even though the defendant did not act in good faith."
The man who directly institutionalized cruel sessions of interrogation in Abu Ghraib was Major-General Geoffrey Miller, the Guantanamo commander who flew to Abu Ghraib to "Gitmo-ize the confinement operation" there. There followed the increased use of painful shackling and the frequent forcible stripping of prisoners. Maj-Gen Miller's report following his visit in 2003 spoke of the need for a detention guard force at Abu Ghraib that "sets the conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation of the internees/detainees". According to Gen Karpinski, Maj-Gen Miller said the prisoners "are like dogs, and if you allow them to believe they're more than a dog, then you've lost control of them".
The trail of prisons that now lies across Iraq is a shameful symbol not only of our cruelty but of our failure to create the circumstances in which a new Iraq might take shape. You may hold elections and create a government, but when this military sickness is allowed to spread, the whole purpose of democracy is overturned. The "new" Iraq will learn from these interrogation centers how they should treat prisoners and, inevitably, the "new" Iraqis will take over Abu Ghraib and return it to the status it had under Saddam and the whole purpose of the invasion (or at least the official version) will be lost.
With an insurgency growing ever more vicious and uncontrollable, the emptiness of Mr Bush's silly boast is plain. The real mission, it seems, was to institutionalize the cruelty of Western armies, staining us forever with the depravity of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram - not to mention the secret prisons which even the Red Cross cannot visit and wherein who knows what vileness is conducted. What, I wonder, is our next "mission"?
Ten bloody days in Iraq: 338 dead, 588 wounded
Thursday 28 April
Roadside bomb leaves four American troops dead and two wounded. Two other US troops die in an accident. Five Iraqis killed in attacks.
Friday 29 April
Seventeen bombs, including four suicide attacks in almost as many minutes in Azamiyah, and 13 car bombs in Baghdad area, leave at least 50 dead, including two US servicemen, with 114 Iraqis and seven Americans wounded.
Saturday 30 April
Eleven car bombings, at least two roadside attacks and several rocket, mortar attacks and ambushes. Five car bombs in Baghdad, six more in Mosul, the worst of which, hidden in a mosque shrine, kills a woman and two children. Total of 17 Iraqis and one American dead, plus 32 wounded.
Sunday 1 May
Car bomb attack on mourners at a funeral near Mosul kills around 30, wounds more than 50. Five Iraqi police shot dead at checkpoint; four die and 12 injured in Baghdad car bomb; and one dies, two wounded in bomb at Baghdad amusement park. Other attacks leave one Iraqi dead and 24 injured. Five Americans injured in six other car bombs in Baghdad. Australian civilian taken hostage.
Monday 2 May
Three car bombs in Baghdad kill nine, suicide bombers in Mosul kill one child, injure 15. British soldier killed by roadside bomb is 83rd to die since March 2003. In the north, car bomb kills woman and injures four. Two US soldiers wounded by roadside bomb in Mosul. One US soldier dies, two injured by another roadside bomb. Two US F/A-18 Hornet planes crash, killing both pilots.
Tuesday 3 May
Two Bulgarian soldiers die in road crash. Firefight in Ramadi kills 12 insurgents, Iraqi soldier and two civilians and injures eight, including a small girl. Two US soldiers die in roadside bombings.
Wednesday 4 May
Sixty Iraqis die, 150 hurt, as suicide bomber strikes in Kurdish city of Arbil. Suicide bomber kills 15 and wounds 16, including 10 civilians, in Baghdad. One dead and two wounded in Baghdad firefight.
Thursday 5 May
Suicide bomber hits Baghdad army recruitment center, killing 13, injuring 18. Car bomb kills four Iraqi police in Mosul and wounds five. Gunmen ambush police convoy, killing 10, wounding two. Car bomb kills one, wounds six.
Friday 6 May
Suicide bomber in car strikes at southern vegetable market, killing 31, injuring 45. Another kills eight police in Tikrit. Bodies of 12 men dressed in civilian clothes and blindfolded, found in Baghdad.
Saturday 7 May
Suicide car bomb explodes, killing 22 and injuring around 35. US soldier killed, and four more bodies found at mass grave. Two men found executed in Ramadi.
© 2005 Robert Fisk