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BERLIN (Reuters) - A new film aims to show that the grim abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was not merely the work of a few bad apples, but the product of an American military machine gone horribly wrong.
Four years on, the documentary by U.S. director Errol Morris tells the story of the low-level soldiers who ignited global outrage when their own photographs of their humiliation and intimidation of Iraqi detainees became public.
"Was Abu Ghraib just a set of a couple hundred pictures showing some bizarre events or was Abu Ghraib a nightmare created by America that in some real sense shows the true character of the war?" he said.
"Standard Operating Procedure," given its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on Tuesday, features interviews with several of the soldiers involved.
All, including former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski -- the highest-ranking casualty of Abu Ghraib -- see themselves as scapegoats for superiors who they say condoned the abuse or looked the other way.
Combining interviews of the soldiers with images of the abuse snapshots, nightmarish slow-motion re-enactments and previously unseen video footage, the movie is a depiction of a jail described as reeking of "urine, feces and body rot."
The Abu Ghraib photographs shocked the world and dealt a powerful blow to America's image when they were first published in the spring of 2004.
"No one ever tried to make any sense of the pictures, or put them in some kind of context or explain them," Morris told Reuters in an interview.
His film attacks U.S. military leaders, from Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld down, who set up Abu Ghraib as a makeshift jail in the months after the U.S. invasion and then handed over the reins to frightened, ill-equipped army soldiers.
The soldiers tell Morris how truckloads of Iraqis, including children, were plucked off the streets of Baghdad. In the prison many were abused, beaten and sexually humiliated.
Images showed naked Iraqis being piled in a pyramid, or lined up and forced to perform sex acts.
Lynndie England, the squat private who was shown holding a naked Iraqi on a leash in one of the most shocking photographs, appears a naive character.
Only 20 years old when she arrived in Abu Ghraib, she fell in love with Charles Graner, later having his baby only to be rejected by him for another female soldier in the prison.
"I wouldn't want to go back and change anything," she tells Morris, referring to her son Carter, whose father Graner is serving a 10-year prison sentence and was not interviewed for the film.
"We thought it was unusual, weird and wrong, but the example was already set," England says of the abuse.
Morris uses a unique technology which helps interviewees stare directly into the camera, which he developed for "The Fog of War," his award-winning 2003 film about Vietnam-era Pentagon chief Robert S. McNamara.
As the new movie opens, Rumsfeld is seen paying a visit to Abu Ghraib only weeks before the abuse in the photos took place. After a cursory inspection, he cuts the visit short: "I don't need to see anything else," Karpinski quotes him as saying.
Writing by Noah Barkin; editing by Andrew Roche