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Losing hearts and minds

WHEN THE Abu Ghraib prison scandal exploded a year ago, President Bush said it was ''an insult to the Iraqi people and an affront to the most basic standards of morality and decency." He said, ''These humiliating acts do not reflect our character." He also said, ''American soldiers and civilians on the ground have come to know and respect the citizens of Iraq."

Less than a week before the scandal became worldwide news, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that all was relatively well between Iraqi civilians and American occupiers.

''I don't think that we have lost their hearts and minds," Powell said. ''I think most of the Iraqi people know what we are doing and want to be part of that. . . . What we don't have are the hearts and minds of the thugs, the former regime elements, and the terrorists who have come to make trouble. . . . The Iraqi people, whose hearts and minds we have, will see that these thugs and criminals are attacking the government of the Iraqi people."

On Wednesday, National Public Radio broadcast a piece that made it appallingly clear that we have not cleaned up our character in Iraq. Humiliation remains a primary weapon. For all the soldiers who have a heart, a lot also appear to have lost their minds.

NPR reporter Philip Reeves followed American soldiers around Mosul. At one point, the soldiers decided to take over a civilian house for two hours as a surveillance post. A lieutenant said to the surprised family of the house, ''Listen to me. Let me make this really clear for you. We need to be in your house for two hours. Everybody in this house will stay here."

When the family continue to appear to be ''baffled and unhappy," another soldier stepped in and said (with obscenities bleeped out by NPR):

''Look, check this out. You tell them this. You're not [bleep] leaving. Nobody's [bleep] leaving this house. You're not using the phone. Anybody comes, they're going to [bleep] stay here. OK? You give me a [bleep] hard time, I'll turn you [bleep] guys into the commandos, and they'll [bleep] you up."

In the background, one soldier said, ''Hey don't translate that." Another soldier added, ''Yeah, don't say that." The soldier with the foul mouth said, ''That's what I tell them all the time." Again, a soldier said, ''You shouldn't say that."

Bush has boasted how ''Iraqis have laid the foundations of a free society, with hundreds of independent newspapers." The reality was a bit more totalitarian. The featured soldiers handed out a newspaper full of favorable news about the US-installed government. When they saw that two young Iraqis had ripped up the newspaper, a soldier took one aside and asked, ''Why are you ripping up the paper? Why are you ripping up the paper?"

A staff sergeant told NPR, ''When a guy tears up a paper in my face, it looks like he's disrespecting everything we're trying to do. Maybe he knows somebody. Or maybe he is somebody. But it's just blatant for him to tear it up in my face and then lie about it. It's blatant. He blatantly disrespected everything that we're trying to accomplish."

Finally a supervising soldier, playing the benevolent occupier, told the young Iraqi, ''If you tore up the paper, that's fine. If you didn't tear up the paper, that's fine. Don't tear up the papers in the future, OK?"

This is not to tear up the soldiers. They are but pawns of President Bush, who declared major combat operations over under the banner of ''Mission Accomplished" two years ago. If all that soldiers can now accomplish is curse at baffled Iraqi families and berate people in the streets for exercising what we consider the right of free speech to tear up a newspaper, then there is no mission.

In a sign of their morass, the soldiers described themselves in lowly terms far removed from the pre-invasion build-up, when Vice President Dick Cheney said ''we will be greeted as liberators." The supervising soldier in Mosul told NPR as his armored vehicle cruised the streets, ''If you look on the walls here, you can see all this graffiti. We've really taken to the streets here kind of like a gang unit would in, say, LA. It's a giant gang war, and we've got the biggest gang, so every time we see graffiti, we mark it out, we tag it with 'US Forces,' and we say, 'Hey look, this is our block.' "

Funny, when Bush told us we were liberating the Iraqi people, he said nothing about employing the Crips and Bloods.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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