The controversy over whether to release photographs of the flag-draped caskets of war dead arriving from Iraq has centered on the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., and a decade-old ban on press coverage.

But Ramstein Air Base in Germany is where nearly all caskets land before continuing their final journey. Despite the Dover ban dating to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Ramstein until last year allowed the media to photograph caskets returning from fighting in Afghanistan and from other hostilities or accidents abroad.

The base routinely hosted solemn ceremonies to honor the arriving fallen. An honor guard would greet the dead with disciplined marches and salutes snapped from pristine gloves.

That all changed during March of last year. The Pentagon reminded the military of its policy and its intent to enforce it not only at Dover but around the globe. That officially stopped arrival ceremonies, too.

Critics call the policy a political ploy to keep war support from flagging. The press largely calls it a wrongheaded move denying Americans the right to view humbling and respectful images. Troops in Iraq are mixed: Some agree with the Pentagon, saying the ban spares families from reliving crushing grief; some view it as denying grim reality.

As for Ramstein, Air Force officials say the base is just following orders.

“I know at least during Operation Enduring Freedom that policy was relaxed, and we actually did have a number of media opportunities at Ramstein when deceased servicemembers transited the base,” said Darlene Cowsert, a Ramstein spokeswoman. “At the beginning of the Iraq war, DOD reconfirmed the existing policy.”

“This is a DOD policy, not a policy of the Air Force,” said Master Sgt. Joe Bela, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. “I believe the policy was in place, but it was only recently enforced.”

Ramstein is notified two or three times a week that cargo planes carrying war dead will land. As of Tuesday, at least 772 troops have died in Iraq since fighting began last year. Ramstein is a required stop because it is a major European hub and is near Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which performs autopsies.

Ceremonies may no longer greet the war dead there. But there is still reverence.

“I don’t think anyone has ever been a part or observed that process that is not personally touched and moved,” Cowsert said. “They know that each container that comes off an aircraft is someone’s son or daughter or husband or wife, and there are many lives affected by their loss.”

The issue of whether the images should be made public came to a head last month when The Seattle Times published a photo of caskets meticulously arranged in flag-striped rows.

The woman who took the photo, Tami Silicio, worked for Maytag Aircraft Corp. at Kuwait International Airport. She took the photo, she has said, to demonstrate the care with which the military transported its dead. She received no money for the photo. But Silicio and her co-worker husband were fired for violating the Pentagon ban.

Also last month, activist Russ Kick obtained a CD-ROM full of images of military caskets from Scott Air Force Base, Ill., the headquarters of Air Mobility Command.

Kick had tried to get the photos directly from Dover through a Freedom of Information Act request. It was denied. Kick appealed. The Air Force then sent him 361 photos, and Kick posted them on his site, Most are of war dead; some are from the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.

The images show troops with expressions of sober focus carrying the coffins or gently smoothing creases from the flags in which the coffins are wrapped. Troops salute them and appear to pray over them. No identifying marks are visible.

The military has since said it won’t release any more such photos. Dover even took down the Web site hosted by its mortuary. It, too, had featured a photo of red-, white- and blue-covered caskets.

“The purpose of the policy is to protect the wishes and the privacy of the families during their time of greatest loss and grief,” said Maj. Kristen Carle, a spokeswoman with the Department of the Army, in a written response to questions. Carle said the only time the policy was lifted at Dover was following the 2000 attack on the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole and when Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 other passengers were killed in a 1996 plane crash in Croatia.

Carle’s message then quotes the March 2003 Pentagon guidance: “There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein AB or Dover AB, to include interim stops.”

Media companies, reporters and veterans’ organizations sued for access to Dover during the first Gulf War. But a federal district court and later an appeals court determined that the press ban did not violate the First Amendment.

“It’s a policy that reflects what the families have told us they would like by way of the treatment of remains of the loved ones who have made that sacrifice,” said John Molino, deputy undersecretary of defense, at a recent press conference. Molino said the policy has survived both Republican and Democratic administrations and was apolitical.

Kick, though, views the policy as a political maneuver to keep the human cost of war off the front pages.

“These 288 photos are the ones you weren’t allowed to see, which is why the Pentagon and the White House are furious about this,” Kick wrote on his Web site. To him, the battlefield dead “are swept under the rug by the Pentagon.”

Kick did not respond to an interview request.

The managing editor of The Seattle Times did not go so far as to label the Pentagon’s motives political. But David Boardman did say he and his staff were surprised by the fallout of running Silicio’s digital snapshot, and that he didn’t buy military arguments about sensitivities.

“We got approximately 2,000 e-mails and letters and phone calls, and the vast majority of those were supportive, and they came from all over the world,” Boardman said. “Among those were dozens from the families of those in the military, and even those were overwhelmingly positive.”

Boardman said readers against U.S. involvement in Iraq were “grateful to see what they saw as the toll of what they would call Bush’s war.” Others supported the White House but opposed a blackout.

Boardman does not believe there was anything offensive about the photo, though he agrees that any family members awaiting caskets at Dover should not be greeted by the burst of flashbulbs.

“But in a photograph like the one that we published, with nearly two dozen caskets and no names attached, the privacy argument simply doesn’t hold water,” Boardman said. “The policy was about Dover, but the Pentagon has just continually expanded it, where the initial justification just doesn’t hold.”

Some soldiers serving in Iraq disagreed.

Sgt. Brian Casanova and Sgt. Freddie Lewis, both of the 1st Cavalry Division, said they hadn’t seen the photograph, but their instincts were to support it.

Lewis said seeing those photos wouldn’t bother him, but might be hard on family members. And he believed there is political motivation for the ban.

“It’s becoming that more people are against the war,” he said. “And people are noticing that people over here are dying. It’s almost like showing we’re losing the war.”

Casanova largely agreed. “Family members seeing it at home might be thinking, ‘That’s my brother. That’s my uncle.’”

Casanova knew several soldiers killed in April, and said he thought their memorials should be off-limits to media to protect the privacy of grieving comrades paying last respects. But he also said he thought pictures, once soldiers’ remains are brought to Dover, should be allowed.

“They’re finally home.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Neil L. Ciotola of the 1st Cav’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Baghdad, however, believes the public needs to see the truth.

His sister-in-law’s 21-year-old son is in the National Guard.

“She asked me, ‘Is it bad?’ I said, ‘I won’t sugarcoat it for you. People get killed here every day.’ As long as Americans are here, people are going to die every day. Why would we want to hide it?

“If it’s my time to go, why does it infringe on my wife’s privacy if someone sees my flag-draped casket? Now, the public has no right to view my remains. That’s an issue for my wife to decide. But that plane we take that last ride home on belongs to the American people.”

Reporters Nancy Montgomery and Terry Boyd contributed to this report.

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