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Last Updated: Monday, 13 February 2006, 15:02 GMT
No surprises in the war on terror
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs Editor

In the past few days we have seen two uncomfortable facets of the war on terror.

News of the World being read by a woman
The images of UK soldiers in Iraq were carried by a British paper
One was from Basra, where the two-year-old video of British soldiers brutally beating young Iraqi stone-throwers has surfaced in the pages of a British tabloid newspaper.

British soldiers have mostly behaved well in Iraq, but not always.

Long after they have withdrawn they will be remembered there and throughout the Islamic world for the occasional moments of brutality, not for the rest of their behaviour.

It is a different world nowadays. It is harder to hide things permanently. And a quick, angry reaction which might have been common enough in the past no longer looks good when people find out about it.

Those who are under attack often feel justified in hitting back in whatever way comes to hand. And you only have to look at online discussions of the beatings in Basra to see that the soldiers who carried them out have their supporters.

Guantanamo unrest

The other uncomfortable details which have emerged in the past few days relate to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, where 517 men are being held without trial.

After the appalling attacks of 11 September 2001, most Americans supported the idea of locking up men who had fought for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Maybe the majority of those who went on hunger strike were telling the truth when they said they had no links to terrorist organisations
President George W Bush himself has assured them that the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay are "the worst of the worst".

During the past few weeks there has been a widespread hunger strike among the prisoners there.

It was effectively ended last week when the prison authorities took tough action to deal with the hunger strikers.

It seems as though they were worried about the effect on international opinion if one or more of the prisoners were to die.

The hunger strikers were strapped into "restraint chairs" and forcibly fed. The Pentagon says the tactics used were humane and compassionate.

According to American lawyers representing some of the prisoners, one of the methods was for riot control soldiers to hold the prisoners down while long plastic tubes were inserted into their nasal passages and down into their stomachs.

A Washington lawyer who visited Guantanamo last week called it "a disgrace".

Confused truth

But why did the prisoners decide to go on hunger strike in the first place?

Because they claimed that they had no link to al-Qaeda or other extreme Islamist groups, and were demanding to be released.

Inmates at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay
Guantanamo Bay has become a symbol of the US war on terror
That could just be a tactic, of course. Yet a thorough analysis by an American law professor and a defence lawyer of information released by the US defence department revealed last week that 92% of the 517 Guantanamo detainees had not been al-Qaeda fighters.

Of these, 40% have no clear connection with al-Qaeda, and 18% have no connection with either al-Qaeda or the Taleban.

In total, 60% are there because they have been accused of being associated with a group which the US government regards as a terrorist organisation.

Most detainees are regarded as enemy combatants.

Among the criteria reportedly used to define an enemy combatant are these: possession of a rifle; possession of a Casio watch; and wearing olive drab clothing.

In Afghanistan it has long been regarded as normal for every adult male to have a gun, because there was so much violence in the country.

Casio watches and olive-coloured clothes can be bought in every market in every town in the country.

Inmates read a notice board at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay
Most of those held at the base deny any involvement with terror
But where do all these prisoners come from, anyway?

According to the Pentagon, 95% of them were not captured by the Americans themselves.

Some 86% were handed over in Afghanistan and Pakistan after a widespread campaign in which big financial bounties were offered in exchange for anyone suspected of links to al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

The US lawyers quote the text of one of the notices the Americans handed out: "Get wealth and power beyond your dreams... You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taleban forces catch al-Qaeda and Taleban murderers.

"This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life."

So, according to the figures supplied by the Pentagon, it looks as though more than 440 men out of the total of 517 at Guantanamo were handed over to the Americans in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a direct result of these bounties.

Shocked, not surprised

Let's recapitulate briefly. According to the US Department of Defense, only 8% of the prisoners at Guantanamo were al-Qaeda fighters, and only 5% of them were captured by the Americans themselves.

The overwhelming majority of the others were handed over to the Americans by people who could reasonably be called bounty hunters.

Maybe the majority of those who went on hunger strike were telling the truth when they said they had no links to terrorist organisations.

When the video apparently showing British soldiers beating up young stone-throwers was shown around the world on Sunday, a spokesman for al-Fadhila, an important moderate political party in Basra and southern Iraq, was asked for his reaction.

He was, he said, "shocked but not surprised".

Many other moderate people throughout the Islamic world and beyond will feel the same way about this.

And about the official figures which show the true background of the prisoners at Guantanamo.


Do you agree with John Simpson's views? What is your reaction to the recent events? Is it possible to fight a 'clean' war on terror?




JOHN SIMPSON'S COLUMN

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