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Waging ''war on terrorism'' 30 squares at a time

Written by: Staff

GUANTANAMO BAY US NAVAL BASE, Cuba, Sep 17 (Reuters) Ringed by cells where bearded men pace back and forth behind windowed doors, a US sailor in camouflage fatigues stood by a metal table with a roll of toilet paper, portioning out strips of 30 squares each.

Beside him, another sailor polishes one of the face shields that protect guards at the Guantanamo naval base's maximum-security Camp 6 from flying spit and urine-feces ''cocktails'' hurled by prisoners.

The two guards are among 1,800 US troops at the camp that holds 340 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives at the US naval base in southeast Cuba and their commander is worried about their morale.

Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, who took command of the operation in May, conducted a survey that showed 38 percent had high morale, 32 per cent had low morale and 31 per cent fell somewhere in between.

''I read that to say about two-thirds of you are not very happy,'' Buzby told his troops in a report on the survey results.

He blames the constant stress of a dangerous job, long deployments and isolation from family.

''I'm the commander of a force that is in contact with the enemy 24 hours a day, seven days a week and that's a concern,'' Buzby said in an interview in early September.

Elsewhere, debate rages about the future of the detention camp, which opened in January 2002 to hold captives in what Washington calls its ''war on terrorism'' and has since become an international symbol of injustice.

''No word is more poisonous to the reputation of the United States than Guantanamo,'' Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the leaders of a US government commission that investigated the attacks of September 11, 2001, wrote in an anniversary essay in the Washington Post.

They said the United States had failed to establish a fair legal process to hold captives there for long periods, and joined the chorus of calls to shut down the camp, which costs 125 million dollars a year to run.

The US military is still sending captives to Guantanamo, most recently an Afghan described as an al Qaeda leader on September 12.

But it also has released 435 Guantanamo prisoners, including more than 100 in the last year, casting doubts on earlier claims that they were ''the worst of the worst.'' Only a third of those left are still being interrogated.

Military spokesmen characterize allegations of torture and abuse at Guantanamo as al Qaeda propaganda and said captives are treated humanely.

At the base, Buzby said he tells his troops, ''Don't you worry about the debate that's going on because it will be going on for quite some time. Our focus must be on our mission.'' For guards on the front line of the US war on terrorism at Guantanamo, that often involves tedious chores such as counting out toilet paper rations.

''Noncompliant'' prisoners who violate camp rules are allotted 30 squares a day because bigger wads of tissue can be moistened and dried to make crude papier-mache-type shanks for use as weapons to attack guards, said Army Staff Sgt Jerry Rushing.

A young Navy guard three months into her first deployment said her job is ''to treat the detainees fair, firm and impartial.'' Pressed for details, she said she delivers food and water to captives and escorts them from their cells to the recreation yard.

Guards remove their name tags inside the razor-wire ringed camps and usually do not want their names used in press reports. Many fear al Qaeda could track them down and ''that they could be the butt of retribution,'' Buzby said.

They work 12-hour shifts wearing heavy Kevlar anti-stab vests under their uniforms. Guantanamo is searingly hot, the base is isolated and the balky Internet connections can make it difficult to keep in touch with family during the year-long deployments that most guards serve.

The military's morale and welfare department provides amusements such as bowling, movies, a jazz festival and free fishing trips. It recently flew in a tattoo artist.

The military also has begun letting spouses and children fly in for visits when there is space available on troop flights, Buzby said.

He has high praise for his troops, calls their mission honorable and has no idea when it will end.

''If we get told to close this place down, we'll execute that as smartly and as professionally as we have run it for the past five years,'' Buzby said. ''If it continues on for another five years or 10 years or whatever, we'll continue to run it and continue to improve our management of the facility until such time we're told to do otherwise.'' REUTERS SYU RAI0837

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