Mopping Up

The ordeal of the New Yorkers sent to clean up the mess at Abu Ghraib

Some complained that Hussey was too verbally abusive. When he was confronted by a subordinate, Hussey often lost his temper. Sometimes he would simply transfer them off the base. There were at least four such transfers, including Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein, who had clashed with the commander on several occasions over his management style.

"He didn't like to be second-guessed," she says. "I would raise questions about things he wanted to do, and he would get angry with me."

According to Rubenstein, the final straw came in June when she had a disagreement with one of Hussey's officers over the transfer of prisoners. Rubenstein was sent abruptly to Camp Bucca, where she became the senior command sergeant major for an even larger base which contained 10,000 prisoners and 3,000 soldiers and civilians.


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"At Bucca, I had even more responsibility than I did at Abu Ghraib, but I was still irritated about the transfer," she says.

Gerald Della Salla, meanwhile, was furious when he was handed a shotgun and moved from his job as a clerk in the detainee processing section into the camps.

In his inspector general complaint, Della Salla pointed out that he was not a military policeman, and he hadn't received detainee operations training back at Dix. He wasn't even qualified on the shotgun. "I have no qualifications for this, no necessary training," he wrote in the e-mail to the IG. "To work like that is dangerousfor everyone."

For his part, Hussey says soldiers got additional training in Iraq. And he acknowledges that his command style strained his relationship with his men, but his goal was larger than that.

"It's not a personality contest," he says. "I know I have some NCOs [non-commissioned officers] who will never talk to me again, who won't be sending me a Christmas card, but we did what we had to do. I'm going to stand by my accomplishments."

video: On the day after the April 2, 2005, attacks, soldiers noticed that a tractor had been abandoned on an approach road to Abu Ghraib. A trailer carrying two 50-gallon drums was attached to the tractor, and wired to explosives. Somehow the device exploded, and the large plume of smoke is the video is the result. Some soldiers say that a dead body was lying next to the tractor, and when an Iraqi civilian came up and disturbed it, the device exploded. In other words, the body was wired to the device. Others are unclear on how it exploded.
image: credit
As August merged into September, the number of prisoners grew to more than 5,000, double what it had been when the 306th arrived. And the closing of Abu Ghraib didn't seem any closer than it did back in December, when officials told Hussey he would only have to run the place for 60 days.

Then, in two groups in August and September 2005, the Army released 2,000 prisoners. A press release said the prisoners had been cleared of all charges, and stated that the move "marks a significant event in Iraq's progress toward democratic governance."

But unit insiders couldn't help but think another reason was sheer overcrowding. "You don't always know all of the reasons for the releases, but we were busting at the seams and something had to be done," Rubenstein says.

Most of the members of the 306th had arrived in Iraq convinced that every detainee was a terrorist. But as the months passed, the simple work of running the prison taught them that things weren't quite so clear-cut. It became obvious, they say, that men rounded up in counterinsurgent operations were being held under limited evidence.

Rubenstein ran the office where detainees were first brought in flex cuffs after their arrest. She eventually came to believe that a lot of Iraqis were unfairly swept up in those raids.

"If there wasn't any physical evidence or the sworn statements were duplicated for each one, you knew there was something questionable," she says. "A lot of times, they would go to a house looking for someone and just bring everyone in."

The prisoners learned the basic charge against them quickly, but they routinely waited six months for a formal review of those charges. And because they weren't allowed visitors initially, they often had to wait three months before they learned whether their relatives knew where they were.

"The whole process just took too long, and that was bad for them, and bad for us," Rubenstein says. "It made them unhappy. It's difficult being in a detainee camp anyway, and they were in Abu Ghraib, a place they feared. They had no idea what was coming next."

On the roads of Iraq, Rene LeClerc got a sense of how average Iraqis felt about the detainee system. On several occasions, he says, crowds of angry townspeople crowded his convoy buses.

One time, LeClerc recalled, a traffic jam halted the convoy. Soon, Iraqis clustered around and began yelling at the soldiers. The crowd grew into the hundreds. LeClerc and the other soldiers pushed the crowd back.

"I'm saying, we're fucked!" he remembers.

Finally, the order came down to simply shove the civilian vehicles aside. An armored car came forward and pushed the cars into a drainage ditch along the road. The convoy moved on. "The Iraqis didn't ask for it, but getting the cars out of the ditch was their problem," he said. "We didn't make any friends that day."

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