Tony Allen-Mills, Focus: Trophy Snaps that Humbled a Nation, The Times (London), May 9, 2004.

They had expected an apology, but nobody had imagined that Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of defence, would announce that the scandal could get worse.

During a six-hour grilling by senators and congressmen in Washington last Friday, Rumsfeld warned that the Pentagon was sitting on hundreds more photographs and several video tapes showing behaviour far worse than the pictures published last week of American soldiers humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners.

"There are other photos that depict incidents of physical violence towards prisoners, acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhumane," Rumsfeld said. "It's going to get a great deal more terrible, I'm afraid."

The Pentagon issued no further details, but yesterday the extent of America's spiralling prison scandal was beginning to emerge.

The unreleased images were reported to show US soldiers severely beating an Iraqi prisoner who was visibly close to death. A female Iraqi prisoner was raped. A video tape, apparently shot by US troops, showed Iraqi guards raping young boys.

Equally disturbing were other tapes showing US military personnel standing with the corpses of Iraqis whom officials believe may have been murdered in custody.

"We're talking about rape and murder here," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "We're not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience. We're talking about rape, murder and some very serious charges."

The Pentagon had no immediate plans to release the pictures, but they seem certain to be leaked. The scandal that has engulfed the coalition's reconstruction work in Iraq shows no sign of abating.

Too bad the Pentagon did not see it coming. Just 48 hours after the first jaw-dropping images of naked Iraqis piled into heaps by US military guards were broadcast by American television, there was a flurry of police activity along Connecticut Avenue, one of Washington's busiest commuter arteries.

Streets were blocked and rush-hour traffic halted as an armoured black limousine carrying President George W Bush turned onto Kalorama Road and drew up in front of an imposing mansion.

The president was paying the rarest of compliments to one of his most accomplished advisers. Bush had come to dinner at Rumsfeld's home to express his "deep appreciation" for the job he was doing in Iraq.

Within a week, all Rumsfeld's social engagements were cancelled as he battled to save his job. As bizarre images of smirking American prison guards and their humiliated Iraqi charges were reprinted in newspapers around the globe, Rumsfeld was summoned to the White House for an unprecedented public scolding by the man who had come to praise him only a few nights before.

Calls for his resignation reverberated across Washington as the 71-year-old defence secretary was hauled to Capitol Hill for a furious inquisition into his handling of a crisis that has humiliated the United States.

Between his dinner with Bush and the shouts of "Fire Rumsfeld" that interrupted his Senate testimony had come details of an almost unthinkable breakdown in US military discipline. In the cold, bureaucratic language of an official Pentagon report on Iraqi prisoner abuse, Major General Antonio Taguba spelt out the shocking extent of what he described as "sadistic, blatant and wanton abuses" inflicted on detainees.

Leaked to The New Yorker magazine, the report caused consternation in Washington last Sunday, not only for the horrors it described - "forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves . . . sodomising a detainee with a chemical light" - but also because Rumsfeld had somehow omitted to warn officials of the bomb that was about to explode in their laps.

While the defence secretary bore the brunt of delayed American shock at the scope and severity of the scandal, it was clear more than one man was responsible for the bewildering series of errors, misjudgments and failures of leadership that have caused a public relations catastrophe for the coalition effort in Iraq and the broader war against terrorism.

Months, if not years, of expensive attempts to persuade the world of the virtues of American-style democracy have been sullied by the excesses of a reckless group of military prison guards whose most dangerous weapons turned out to be digital cameras. "These depraved and despicable actions will fuel the hatred and fury of those who oppose us," one senator told Rumsfeld on Friday.

The collapse of discipline at the prison that was formerly notorious as Saddam Hussein's most feared torture dungeon may have been, as the Pentagon argued last week, an isolated failure by rogue guards who are now in the process of being punished. This was, insisted one Pentagon general last week, a "criminal aberration".

Alternatively it may signify, as many critics have alleged, a more disturbing collapse of traditional American values under the pressure of a difficult war. Is abuse now par for the course in America's secretive military prison system? What really goes on at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where claims of abuse by recently released British detainees were scornfully dismissed in Washington? And what about the other prisons that the Pentagon rarely mentions - in Iraq, Afghanistan and (it is believed) elsewhere?

There is one more question that Bush is certain to be pondering this weekend. The war against terrorism is being waged against well-hidden militant fanatics who think nothing of blowing up women and children to achieve their aims. Is this really a game he can expect to win if the world insists on him playing clean?

In Iraq last week it sometimes seemed as if everyone had a story of American abuse.

Bilal Naji Ahmad, an unemployed 24-year-old Sunni Muslim, was released from a US military prison in Iraq 20 days ago, having spent a month inside. He said last week that he was arrested for no obvious reason while guarding a cousin's house about 10km from Falluja.

"First I was hooded and handcuffed and then put in a truck where I was kicked and beaten," he said.

At the military base where he was taken, Ahmad said he spent the first week incarcerated in a tiny metal cage. He was then moved to a larger holding area on the same base.

"I could not walk at the beginning because my legs and hands were stiff from being cooped up in the cage," he said.

Before being moved he was told to undress. "I removed my clothes and kept my underwear on, but the soldiers said no, you must remove your underwear as well."

Naked, he was taken to a tent to join other prisoners. For three days he and several others were left naked, with no mattresses or blankets to cover themselves with.

"The soldiers would tell us in Arabic 'teezak helweh' which means 'your ass is nice'," Ahmad said. "At night the soldiers would come and wake us with shouts and by kicking us. They would drop their pants and say 'isn't my penis nice, why don't you suck on it. Come on, come on'."

The soldiers, he said, also brought pornographic magazines and forced them to look at explicit pictures of homosexual sex. They would then slit open the Iraqi-style pitta bread known as sammoon and place their penises in it before moving round the prisoners asking each one if they wanted a "hot dog".

"This humiliation is the characteristic of a coward and a cowardly people," Ahmad said. Whether or not his story is true, there was no doubting the damage the abuse scandal had inflicted on America's image at home and abroad.

"Man has been scarred", announced the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. "The emperor has no clothes", sneered Lebanon's al-Anwar newspaper. "Donald Rumsfeld should go", declared The New York Times.

Stung by the hostile international reaction, Bush sought to defuse the crisis by announcing new talks with Palestinian officials. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, will travel to Europe this week to meet Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister, in a bid to reassure the Arab world that America remains serious about democracy for the region.

Yet for many Arab and European leaders the growing scandal had merely confirmed American hypocrisy and self-interest. France's foreign ministry called the abuse "totally unacceptable". An Arab columnist in London warned: "No quick fix is going to reverse the current antagonism toward American policies."

Ahmad's account was echoed by Taguba's startling list of abuses, which included "forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing" and writing "I am a Rapest (sic)" on the leg of a detainee.

What Taguba could not explain is how a group of American military police reservists could come to behave in such a vicious and objectionable manner.

When Janis Karpinski was five years old she dreamed of being a soldier. She lined up her dolls in her New Jer- sey backyard and wrote "A-OK-US Army" on them. She would startle neighbours by sitting on the ledge of an upstairs bedroom window: she was imagining what it would be like to parachute out of an aircraft.

Karpinski eventually joined the army and made more than 100 parachute jumps. She served with Special Forces, won a Bronze Star for valour and became one of the army's highest-ranking women officers before retiring to become a business consultant specialising in executive training. As a brigadier general in the reserves, she was called up last year and sent to Iraq in June as the commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, in charge of the American network of prisons and detention facilities.

She had no experience of prisons, but the Pentagon was desperate. Little had gone according to plan after the fall of Baghdad. Instead of being showered with flowers by newly liberated Iraqis, the coalition had become embroiled in a messy counterinsurgency campaign against Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters.

The Iraqis who were supposed to step up to assist the reconstruction effort proved either useless or afraid. The United Nations had been bombed into early departure. Jobs that should have been taken by civilian experts fell to the military instead.

It was on Karpinski's watch that reports began to multiply of human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. The International Committee of the Red Cross made several formal complaints to American officials. By the autumn the Pentagon was sufficiently alarmed to begin a formal inquiry. Major General Donald Ryder, who as provost marshal was effectively the army's top sheriff, was dispatched to make a report.

Ryder is now known to have visited Abu Ghraib at the time when the worst of the abuse was occurring. Yet his team concluded that "no military police units (are) purposely applying inappropriate confinement practices".

Ryder noted that contrary to army regulations, military police were actively assisting intelligence teams by "setting favourable conditions" for interviews - a euphemism for softening up prisoners ahead of interrogation.

Nonetheless, Ryder found no evidence of abuse. The Pentagon was relieved. No further action was taken. Then a worried young military policeman pushed an anonymous note under a superior's door.

Specialist Joseph Darby, a reservist in the 372nd Military Police company, had seen a copy of a computer disk containing pictures of naked detainees. The CD had been circulating among MPs but an appalled Darby, initially unwilling to be seen as a whistleblower, left an unsigned note for the army's criminal investigation division. He eventually agreed to give a statement and another investigation was launched.

By mid-January, Karpinski had been suspended and Taguba was called in to conduct a sweeping review. The Pentagon announced that an investigation of alleged abuse was under way, but gave no further details. The media was too busy chronicling daily attacks on coalition targets to pay the issue much attention.

In late March the Pentagon announced that six prison guards had been suspended. Again, few details were offered and the story made little impact. It was not until a CBS programme, 60 Minutes 2, obtained copies of photographs of prison abuse that military officers began to worry about a possible scandal.

When CBS approached the Pentagon for comment in early April, General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, contacted Dan Rather, the network's senior presenter, to ask that the broadcast be delayed.

By that time US forces in Iraq had been plunged into heavy fighting in Falluja. An unexpected new front had opened in Najaf with a rebellion by Shi'ite radicals loyal to a renegade Islamic mullah, Moqtada al-Sadr. It would have been the worst possible moment for publication of inflammatory pictures of US troops abusing Iraqi prisoners.

Fearful of being accused of inflaming revolt that could cost American soldiers' lives, CBS agreed to wait. Then network executives learned that another crucial piece of the Abu Ghraib jigsaw had fallen into the hands of The New Yorker. Seymour Hersh, the magazine's veteran investigative reporter, had obtained a copy of Taguba's report. CBS told the Pentagon it could not delay any longer. The story exploded on to American television screens on April 28.

For senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill it was bad enough that Rumsfeld had failed to forewarn them of CBS's broadcast. When they were obliged to turn to a magazine to read the details of Taguba's report, cries of a Pentagon cover-up multiplied and the defence secretary found himself facing what one of his aides described as a "lynch mob".

By the end of last week the 55-page report, soberly entitled "Article 15-6 investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade", was available on the internet. It makes extraordinary reading, not just because of its graphic descriptions of prisoners being humiliated and brutalised, but also because of the portrait it paints of a desperately overstretched military operation run with an incompetence that would be comical, had the consequences not been so tragic.

Several commanders were admonished for "failure to properly train soldiers". Taguba cited one instance when a soldier tripped while leaving his vehicle and accidentally fired his rifle into a fuel tank. Numerous prisoners escaped, some had knives and pistols in their cells. Time and again Taguba lamented the "inexperienced guards . . . poor training . . . lack of leadership presence . . . poor morale . . ."

One former US interrogator claimed the Pentagon was so short of qualified interrogators that it had to resort to civilian contractors who sent "cooks and truck drivers" to do sensitive intelligence work.

Like many in Iraq the MPs at the prison had believed they would return to their home base soon after the fall of Baghdad last year. Instead, their stay in Iraq dragged on as the Pentagon struggled to find the troops it needed to continue fighting a mission that for all Bush's bravado in declaring major combat operations over last year, remained stubbornly unaccomplished.

"Morale (among MPs) suffered," Taguba noted, "and over the next few months there did not appear to have been any attempt by the command to mitigate this problem."

Taguba had laid bare the crux of the crisis. This was not a scandal that could conveniently be blamed on half a dozen bad apples. Large swathes of the US military operation in Iraq were demonstrably in chaos. The big question now was how high up the chain of command the buck would eventually stop.

Bush came to power in the disputed 2000 election as a "compassionate" conservative. He prides himself on his Christian beliefs and the sober lifestyle he adopted after his feckless youth. When he first declared his "deep disgust" at the reports of prisoner abuse, many Americans had no trouble believing him.

Both Bush and Rumsfeld have described the scandal as "fundamentally un-American". Yet there is nothing un-American about either prison abuse or the kind of macho mayhem that transpired at Abu Ghraib.

At a Texas prison in Brazoria county in 1996, a video tape showed inmates being forced to strip and lie on the ground. A police dog was set on several prisoners; one was bitten on the leg. Guards prodded prisoners with stun guns and forced them to crawl naked along the ground. Injured inmates were dragged face-down to their cells. Bush was the governor of Texas at the time.

"Unfortunately a lot of the abuse that we've seen in Iraq happens in the US on a fairly regular basis without attracting very much attention," said Alan Elsner, author of Gates of Injustice, a new book on US prison conditions.

Elsner cites the example of Sheriff Gerald Hege, who until recently liked to boast that he ran the toughest jail in America. He even had his own theme song: "All you bad guys had better leave town, Sheriff Hege's not fooling around . . . he loves the smell of handcuffs in the morning".

Hege painted his cells bright pink with pictures of blue teddy bears on the walls. He wanted to make inmates feel like "sissies".

He plastered his home town of Lexington, North Carolina, with posters that read "Do the crime, scumbag, and you'll do the time".

It was possibly no coincidence that at least two of the suspended reservists allegedly involved in Iraqi abuse were civilian prison guards. One of them, Specialist Charles Graner, works on death row at a high-security Pennsylvania prison. Human rights lawyers have previously alleged that guards at the prison routinely beat and humiliated prisoners and sometimes played a sadistic game of Simon Says, in which prisoners were punched if they failed to obey an order.

If getting tough on prisoners turns out to be as American as apple pie, not even the grossest military swagger can adequately explain the numbing sexual extremes to which the guards in Abu Ghraib forced hapless inmates.

What were they thinking, piling bodies in writhing heaps as some guards posed for photographs while others lounged around unconcerned? It didn't take long for America's army of so-called sexual experts to offer an opinion.

Lara Stemple, executive director of a prisoner support group called Stop Prison Rape, said the torture of American prisoners through sexual assault "has long been allowed to flourish".

Her group claims that one in five male inmates in US prisons has faced "forced or pressured" sexual contact while in custody. "These are troubling events (in Iraq)," she said, "but they didn't happen by accident."

If there was one thing family and friends of Private Lynndie England agreed on last week, it is that she couldn't have been doing the things she did for sexual gratification. England, 21, was the dark-haired soldier pictured tugging on a leash tied around the neck of a naked Iraqi man.

Before she arrived in Iraq, England worked at a chicken-processing plant in West Virginia. As a child she reportedly loved violent weather and wanted to become a "storm-chasing" meteorologist. She joined the reserves to make money to put herself through college.

England is reported to have been romantically involved with Graner, the Pennsylvania prison guard, and is pregnant with his child.

She was initially happy to be sent to Iraq, where she helped to process prisoners by fingerprinting them and filing reports. She was not a prison guard and may have been visiting Graner when the damning photographs were taken.

Like many other relatives of the guards facing charges, England's mother is convinced her daughter has been framed to protect more senior officers.

"Our government is so deceiving," Terrie England told The New York Times. "They make this person look as bad as she can. But everything she did, she did because someone high up told her to."

In that stark allegation lies a world of potential pain for Rumsfeld and Bush. If it turns out - perhaps at the trials of the accused guards - that the pictures were part of a military plan for breaking stubborn prisoners, the Pentagon will be disgraced and Bush will have no option but to shake up its leadership in the middle of a difficult war.

The key to this rapidly spiralling scandal may lie in the arrival in Baghdad last August of Major-General Geoffrey Miller, the former commandant of the terrorist detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

Miller had acquired a reputation for obtaining good intelligence under difficult interrogating conditions. Despite worldwide allegations of abuses at Guantanamo Bay, the Pentagon regards the prison as a model for wartime detainees.

It was Miller's job, on arriving in Baghdad, to address US military complaints that interrogations of Iraqi prisoners were yielding little intelligence of value.

According to Taguba's report, Miller concluded in September that interrogation operations were being hampered by "lack of active control" of prisoners inside Abu Ghraib.

Miller's report went on to say: "It is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees."

According to lawyers representing several of the accused guards, Miller was effectively recommending that they be used to apply psychological pressure to prisoners before their interrogations by specialist intelligence officers - in short, to soften them up.

Some lawyers have further argued that the photographs published in the past two weeks were not so-called "trophy" pictures for the guards' private collections, but were intended to be shown to other prisoners as a warning of what might happen should they fail to co-operate.

"These photographs, they are very obviously staged," said Guy Womack, a lawyer in Houston, Texas, representing Graner. "They include simulated sex acts and they are clearly intended for internal use."

Other evidence is contradictory. A computer disk reviewed by The Washington Post showed about 1,000 pictures of prisoners and guards interspersed with harmless tourist shots of soldiers riding camels - suggesting that the pictures had been taken for personal not professional reasons.

Taguba reached no firm conclusion about why the photos were taken, but he quotes Karpinski as blaming the abuse on military intelligence (MI) personnel.

Karpinski stated that "MI personnel had given the MPs 'ideas' that led to detainee abuse," Taguba wrote.

Among the commanders that Taguba recommended be reprimanded was Colonel Thomas Pappas of the 205th MI Brigade, who was accused of "failing to ensure that soldiers under his command knew, understood and followed the protections . . . of the Geneva convention".

Had the war in Iraq been going swimmingly, Rumsfeld might have faced a more sympathetic audience when he took his seat before the Senate armed services committee last Friday.

Yet over the past two years Rumsfeld and his neo-conservative allies have repeatedly angered senators and congressmen with what many see as an arrogant refusal to recognise that their planning for Iraq was flawed.

"He has been dismissive of Congress and now it's payback time," said Loren Thompson at the Lexington Institute, a defence think tank in Washington. Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz are accused by Democrats of rushing to attack Baghdad without any serious consideration of what they might do when they got there.

Senator John Kerry, the Democratic challenger for presidency, last week called on Rumsfeld to resign and denounced "the overextension of the armed forces and the entire way in which they rushed the nation to war. (It) is a huge historic miscalculation".

The Republicans who would normally have leaped to Rumsfeld's defence had other grievances. "No member of the Senate had any clue (about the imminent scandal)," complained Richard Lugar, the influential Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.

"This is entirely unacceptable. I think it's a total washout as far as communications (are concerned)."

During six hours of testimony before two separate committees on Friday, Rumsfeld was asked if his resignation might "serve to demonstrate how seriously we take this situation".

Rumsfeld replied: "That's possible." He said he had given the matter "a lot of thought", and would resign "in a minute" if he felt he could not be effective. He added: "I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it."

Having let it be known that he had rebuked Rumsfeld on Wednesday, Bush made it clear on Thursday that he had no intention of firing his aide.

Several commentators observed yesterday that Rumsfeld's apology and Bush's loyalty to him would probably keep him in his job for a while. But Rumsfeld's warning of more shocks to come made it clear that neither he nor Bush can predict where the scandal will lead.

It was revealed on Friday that 25 prisoners have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. Twelve were found to have died from natural causes; one case was ruled "justifiable homicide", two involved murder. The other 10 are still under investigation.

At least one of the murders is understood to have involved a Central Intelligence Agency interrogator. With the new scrutiny inspired by the Abu Ghraib affair, the CIA seems likely to be called to account for its interrogation techniques and management of so-called high-value prisoners that are believed to be kept at undisclosed locations around the globe - including the British island of Diego Garcia, where America maintains a military base.

The more the abuse of detainees appears to be government policy, the less it seems likely that the Abu Ghraib scandal can safely be blamed on junior guards.

As Washington awaits the next instalment of Iraqi prison porn - and the findings of yet another military inquiry into what went wrong at Abu Ghraib - Bush faces a difficult challenge in restoring honour and purpose in Iraq.

At precisely the moment he most needed international support - ahead of the proposed handover to Iraqi civilian rule by June 30 - the Pentagon has inflamed worldwide hostility to the coalition cause.

It could have been very different. Last September the Pentagon put on a special screening of The Battle of Algiers for 40 officers and civilian experts involved with Iraq. The film, made in 1965 by Gillo Pontecorvo, the Italian communist director, re- enacts the bitter struggle between French paratroops and guerrillas of the Algerian National Liberation Front in the 1960s. The film's Colonel Mathieu is based on General Jacques Massu, the French paratroop commander who defended torture as a "cruel necessity".

The Pentagon flyer for the screening said: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervour. Sound familiar? "The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

Last week's pictures of Americans torturing and humiliating Iraqi captives show that the lessons of Algeria have not been learnt.