Until their publication shocked the world, these pictures were dismissed by the Pentagon as the work of 'six morons who lost the war'. Now the White House says it is as shocked as anyone about what they reveal, and that a few bad apples have poisoned the reputation of a nation. But yesterday the first evidence emerged of systematic abuse of Iraqis. In this special report, we follow the trail from 9/11, the detention camps of Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay to the shame of Abu Ghraib
FLASHBACK: U.S. Pledges to Avoid Torture As the Abu Ghraib scandal engulfed Washington last week, with the media full of pictures of grinning US military police next to naked Iraqi detainees, Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News called a contact in the Pentagon with a query about the six soldiers facing charges for the abuse. "You mean the six morons who lost the war?" the official said. From this side of the Atlantic the official's response might seem a little blinkered. What about all the questions and doubts that already existed - about the exaggerations and lies which took us into war, about the bungled aftermath of a supremely successful military campaign, and about the cost in money and lives of suppressing a growing insurgency against the supposed liberators of the country? He spoke, however, for many Americans, almost certainly including President George Bush and his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
The obscene antics of Private Lynndie England and her boyfriend (by whom she is now pregnant), Specialist Charles Graner, who appear most often in the photographs, have crystallised half-suppressed doubts in the US about what is going on in Iraq. After a slow start, the unfolding tale of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners has swept everything else off the radar screen in Washington. Gradually the full appalling implications are being grasped by an administration that hitherto has never been concerned for anyone's opinion other than its own. A president already facing a tough re-election fight this autumn now realises he has a potentially career-ending disaster on his hands.
As late as Wednesday, as his handlers pushed him into belated damage control by giving interviews to Arab-language TV networks, Mr Bush still didn't get it. To be sure, he declared his "abhorrence" - but then seemed to lecture his questioners on their failure to understand the special godliness of America, which a few individuals had so heinously betrayed. An apology? No way.
Within 24 hours the White House corrected the blunder. After meeting King Abdullah of Jordan, the President said sorry, not once but twice. By Friday Mr Rumsfeld, if anything even more obdurate and sure of his own infallibility than his President, was expressing contrition in his opening statement to a senate committee. Aware that nothing could be more harmful than a constant stream of further revelations, he took care to warn that there was worse to come, in the form of videos as well as photographs. They are said to include Iraqi guards raping young boys, and American soldiers having sex with a female detainee, "acting inappropriately" with a corpse and beating an Iraqi detainee close to death.
Under questioning, however, the Defence Secretary reverted to his combative and self-confident self, and by yesterday Mr Bush was repeating the message he, Mr Rumsfeld and the anonymous Pentagon official are desperate to get across: what happened at Abu Ghraib, the President said in his weekly radio address, was "the wrongdoing of a few".
There was fresh evidence yesterday, however, that the abuse was systematic. One of the accused soldiers, Specialist Sabrina Harman, told The Washington Post that she was specifically ordered by intelligence interrogators to break down prisoners for interrogation. "They would bring in one to several prisoners at a time already hooded and cuffed," she said by email from Baghdad. "The job of the MP was to keep them awake, make it hell so they would talk."
Prisoners were stripped, searched and made to stand or kneel for hours. "Sometimes they were forced to stand on boxes or hold boxes or to exercise to tire them out," she said. "The person who brought them in would set the standards on whether or not to 'be nice' ... Sleep, food, clothes, mattresses, cigarettes were all privileges and were granted with information received."