Chilling new evidence of the brutal regime at Iraqi prison

THE United States prison guard holds a snake up to the camera: "This is a sand viper," she says. "One bite will kill you in six hours. We’ve already had two prisoners die of it, but who cares? That’s two less for me to worry about."

By her own admission, she was a fearsome guard. The prisoners were scared of her, and she had been in trouble for throwing stones at them.

"We actually shot two prisoners today," she says. "One got shot in the chest for swinging a pole against our people on the feed team. One got shot in the arm. We don’t know if the one we shot in the chest is dead yet."

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She filmed her video diary while serving as a guard at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, scene of the abuse scandal that has rocked the US armed forces, and at Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq.

"I hate it here. I want to come home. I want to be a civilian again," she says. The film was to be aired on US television last night.

The abuse scandal had threatened to destroy support for the war in Iraq, but anger in the United States at the beheading of an American captive appears to have tipped the balance back a little.

In the US yesterday, television and radio talk shows were filled with angry calls for vengeance against the killers, believed to be led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate of Osama bin Laden.

After days of apologising, the US was back on the offensive. In Washington, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, defended military interrogation techniques in Iraq and rejected complaints that they violated international rules and could endanger captured Americans.

In the holy city of Karbala, US soldiers backed by tanks and helicopters took on fighters loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hours after Iraqi leaders agreed on a proposal that would end his standoff with the US-led forces. Up to 25 insurgents were killed, the coalition said.

With a typical desire for self-publicity and displaying a willingness to try to capitalise on any coalition setbacks, Sadr chose yesterday to speak publicly to the media for the first time since his al-Mahdi army launched attacks on coalition troops in Baghdad and several other cities in early April.

US forces were fighting Islam, and not terrorism in Iraq, he said, latching on to the abuse of Iraqi detainees by US troops at Abu Ghraib.

"Look at what they have done. Look at the torture they have committed against our detainees. Could anyone who came to rid us of Saddam do this?"

Sadr has been a thorn in the side of the coalition since he emerged into the public eye a couple of months ago.

Initially dismissed as a small-time troublemaker, he has strengthened his hand with the help of a vicious band of followers, many of whom have been drawn from the ranks of criminals released by Saddam Hussein in an amnesty before the war started.

Posters of Sadr have sprung up across southern Iraq. Some of his support comes from disaffected Shiites from the poorer areas, who feel they have nothing to lose. But many Iraqis detest and fear him, accusing his gangs of extortion and random acts of violence.

Other religious leaders are also losing patience with the young firebrand. They are angry he has brought coalition troops to the doors of their mosques, and despite his tough words, Sadr is under mounting pressure from his rivals to step back from his confrontation with the coalition.

Sadr has swung between deference to the more senior and more powerful religious leaders, and defiance. Yesterday he was at it again, offering to disband his militia army if that was what they wanted.

But no sooner had he made that offer than he was likening the US-led occupation to the rule of Saddam Hussein.

It was hard to separate face-saving bravado from hard bargaining. But he might have chosen the wrong moment to talk tough to the Americans.

With the image of the execution of the US civilian Nick Berg fresh in their minds, and smarting from their public humiliation over the abuse scandal, US forces in Karbala were in no mood for negotiation.

After a night and morning of fighting, young men loyal to Sadr were holed-up in a mosque and surrounded by US tanks. By the time the US tanks and jets had finished, half of the Mukhaiyam mosque, which had served as a base for Sadr’s followers, had been destroyed and seven hotels were ablaze.

Most of the shops in Tal al-Zeinabiya, a central market, and three ambulances and two military vehicles were also destroyed.

Hundreds of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims were trapped by the fighting in their hotels. Through the late afternoon, skirmishes continued with intermittent explosions and the rattle of small arms and heavy machine-gun fire.

A witness counted the bodies of 14 Iraqis on a main road and said US snipers were targeting anyone who moved in the mostly empty streets.

Witnesses said US soldiers first tried to enter the Mukhaiyam mosque, but then traded fire with Sadr followers who had moved to the buildings around it.

Sadr urged his followers to resist the US troops, comparing their struggle to the Vietnam War, but they eventually had to concede they had lost control of the mosque.

"We put up a very stiff resistance," said Ameer Latif, 30, a militiaman from the nearby town of Musayyib. Another fighter from the same town, Amar Haider, leaned against a wall with his Kalashnikov rifle in hand: "God willing, we shall still be victorious."

In Najaf, where Sadr has taken refuge, the new US-appointed governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, said he believed his US backers would allow another week for efforts to find a peaceful end to the stand-off in Najaf before resolving it by force.

British commanders have warned their US counterparts that attempting to prise Sadr from the holiest shrine in the Shia religion risks triggering an uprising across the south of the country.

"If you assess US military movements in terms of territorial gains, then US forces a week from now will enter certain areas of the city that will in turn make the prospect of a peaceful settlement very weak," Mr Zurufi warned.

US soldiers also raided houses in Sadr City, a Baghdad neighbourhood where support for the cleric is strong, killing three Iraqis. At one funeral yesterday, mourners raised Iraqi flags and Sadr posters as they chanted: "Down, down USA!"

Hopes for a peaceful solution in Najaf rest on a deal whereby US would agree to pull its forces out of the city and Kufa, while Sadr’s militia would lay down its weapons. Sadr made a similar offer earlier this month.

But yesterday one senior coalition official said it would not negotiate with Sadr over its demands he face justice for the murder of a rival last year, or that his militia be withdrawn from all government buildings and disbanded.

However, the official said the coalition would welcome efforts by "individuals" to help fulfil its demands.

Mr Zurufi said he would ask the US-led administration to defer murder charges against Sadr until after the US transfer of power to an Iraqi administration on 30 June. Sadr has been holed-up in Najaf since last month after US authorities announced an arrest warrant against him in the April 2003 assassination of a rival cleric.

Meanwhile in Fallujah, scene of the bloodiest fighting since the end of the war, US forces warned that they would renew their offensive if security was not restored soon.

Lieutenant-General James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the military would give a new Iraqi brigade some time to strip guerrillas of heavy weapons and crush foreign fighters, but it did not have unlimited patience.

The peace deal has left US marines frustrated and eager for action as they wait in their dust-covered tanks and heavy armoured vehicles in the desert heat while insurgents fail to turn in weapons.

"It is a tiresome waiting," said Corporal Jeremiah Turner, 22, of San Marcos, California.

"Everyone is itching to take care of business. That is what marines do."