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First Trial Date Set in Iraqi Prisoner Abuse

The first in a series of courts-martial in the Abu Ghraib (search) prisoner abuse allegations will begin next week, trials that could bring new revelations on whether the mistreatment of Iraqis was an aberration or stemmed from pressure from commanders.

In Geneva, Switzerland, the International Committee of the Red Cross (search) confirmed its representatives saw U.S. military intelligence officers routinely mistreating prisoners under interrogation during a visit to Abu Ghraib in October. The ICRC's findings were in a confidential report released at its headquarters Monday.

President Bush said the mistreatment "was the wrongdoing of a few," but the Red Cross report backs up with detail the agency's contention that U.S. prisoner abuse was broad and part of a system, "not individual acts."

"ICRC delegates directly witnessed and documented a variety of methods used to secure the cooperation of the persons deprived of their liberty with their interrogators," the report said.

Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits (search) of Hyndman, Pa., a member of the 372nd Military Police Company, will face a military court in Baghdad on May 19 — less than a month after photos of prisoners being abused and humiliated were first broadcast April 28.

Both the speed of the trial's scheduling and the venue in the Iraqi capital underscore the military's realization that it must demonstrate resolve in prosecuting those responsible for a scandal that threatens to undermine the U.S. mission in Iraq and Bush's re-election chances.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt (search), announcing the trial date, said the proceedings would be held in the Baghdad Convention Center and open to media coverage, although he indicated that TV cameras would not be allowed in court.

"It has not been our practice in the past to have cameras inside," he said.

The U.S. military normally allows family members, observers and print reporters to attend trials, Kimmitt said at a briefing.

Sivits "will be tried in an open hearing," Kimmitt said on a morning news program. "To suggest that it's somehow public would give the indication that this is a show trial, no.

"The media will be allowed in the way the media is allowed in any open court-martial, which is the way we have been doing business for quite some time," he said.

Bush promised Saturday that "we will learn all the facts and determine the full extent of these abuses. Those involved will be identified. They will answer for their actions."

Kimmitt also said the military had launched an investigation into interrogation procedures at Abu Ghraib after soldiers accused of mistreating prisoners said they did so at the urging of military intelligence officers.

Sivits is one of seven soldiers facing charges but appears to be a lesser figure in the case. Some of the others will likely face a general court-martial, which can give more severe punishments than the "special" court-martial that will try Sivits. His trial could produce evidence for prosecuting others believed more culpable.

Asked if the special court-martial means that Sivits is cooperating with authorities and will testify against others, Kimmitt said, "No, I don't think it says that at all."

"I think what it says is that the convening authority, Lt. Gen. (Thomas) Metz, took a very hard look at what the investigators brought forward, what the chain of command said about this young man, and what the lawyers brought forward, and in his view, this was the most appropriate method by which to prosecute the crimes for which he is being accused," Kimmitt told NBC.

Sivits is believed to have taken some of the photos that triggered the scandal. His father, Daniel Sivits, said last month his son "was told to take a picture, and he did what he was told." He said his son trained as a mechanic but found himself performing military police work for which he was unqualified.

The family said it had no comment Sunday morning.

Sivits was charged with conspiracy to mistreat detainees, dereliction of duty for failing to protect prisoners and maltreatment of detainees. Seven officers have received career-ending reprimands.

If convicted, Sivits could face one year in prison, reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for a year, a fine or a bad conduct discharge. Penalties could include only one, all or any combination of those punishments. Sivits will be able to chose between trial before a single military judge or a three-member panel of senior officers. He has the right to a civilian attorney and will have access to military counsel.

Several of those charged in the abuse have said they were directed or encouraged by Military Intelligence officers heading interrogations to "soften up" detainees before questioning.

In September, an expert team sent by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller — head of the Guantanamo Bay prison facility — visited Abu Ghraib and recommended that guards help gather intelligence about detainees.

On Nov. 19, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top operational commander in Iraq, issued an order taking tactical control of Abu Ghraib away from the MPs and turning it over to the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, The New Yorker magazine reported Sunday.

That policy went into effect over the objections of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, another military prison expert, who said the change was "not doctrinally sound due to the different missions and agendas assigned to each of these respective specialties," the story says.

Miller, who in April was brought in to head Abu Ghraib in the wake of the scandal, defended his team's recommendations, saying last week that MPs' role in intelligence gathering was supposed to be only from "passive" observation, and he blamed Abu Ghraib's leadership for not following military guidelines.

Operational control over Abu Ghraib will be negotiated after Iraqis regain some sovereignty June 30, coalition spokesman Dan Senor said Monday.

Some Iraqi officials have called for an Iraqi role in the operation of Abu Ghraib and other detention centers.

Months before the scandal broke, the international Red Cross told top Washington officials it had problems with the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay, said Antonella Notari, chief agency spokeswoman.

She said ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger spoke about prison conditions in January with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

"He raised concerns regarding detention in Iraq, along with Guantanamo and other locations," Notari told The Associated Press in Geneva.

The Red Cross report released Monday cites abuses — some "tantamount to torture" — including brutality, hooding, humiliation and threats of "imminent execution."

"These methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information and other forms of cooperation from person who had been arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have an 'intelligence value."'

On Friday, the ICRC said it had repeatedly demanded last year that U.S. authorities correct problems at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers. The Americans took action on some issues but not others, it said.

"We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system," said Pierre Kraehenbuel, the Red Cross operations director.

Iraqis freed from U.S. custody since the war began in March 2003 have long told of abusive treatment including lying bound in the sun for hours; being attacked by dogs; being deprived of water; and left hooded for days.

U.S. lawmakers have warned that the most repulsive photos have yet to be released and have insisted the Army investigation should have repercussions for higher-ups, not just the military police accused of abusing detainees.