...I'm okay with being REALITY-based.

Monday, August 09, 2004
      ( 7:31 AM )
Just Walk Away

Oregon's National Guard has been deployed to Iraq in very large numbers per capita of the population of our state. On the first day after handover of "sovreignty," several of Oregon's Guard members met a situation that was reprehensible - and they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. But they did the right thing. They came upon a scene where Iraqi prison guards had been beating and torturing prisoners and they stopped the torture and administered first aid. But...

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."

Our Guardsmen didn't just do nothing, however. They took pictures of the abuse and reported it to the press. They didn't stay quiet about the orders they were given. They knew something was afoul and they stepped out and spoke up. Our Senator, Ron Wyden, is following up.

"We want to know who gave those orders" to stand down, said Wyden, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Wyden spoke by phone Sunday from California, on his way to visit his mother. The intervention by Oregon Guardsmen, followed by their forced withdrawal, portrays "a very serious problem," he said.

Meanwhile, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski issued a statement saying he is "extremely proud" of the Oregon National Guard soldiers serving in Iraq.

"I am honored by their professionalism as soldiers, their conviction about what is right and their basic sense of humanity," the governor said.

"I am very sorry that they had to witness these terrible events," Kulongoski said. "While war sometimes brings out the best in us, it also brings out the worst. I'm very grateful as an Oregonian that the soldiers of the Oregon National Guard knew the difference. I would expect nothing less from these courageous Oregonians who are serving our country."

There are a lot of reasons I'm proud to be an Oregonian. These days, I've been more proud than I can say of the young Oregon Guardsmen who are serving in Iraq. More than anything, though, rather than being proud that they did the right thing when faced with a horrible situation, I would rather be relieved that they were coming home. Too many have died and been injured, and I just want them to come home.

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