By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 19 -- Before leaving Iraq in February, the 1st Cavalry Division compiled a list of more than 100 allegations of abusive treatment of detainees over the previous six months -- not by U.S. troops, but by Iraqi soldiers and police.
The 3rd Infantry Division, which has since taken over responsibility for the Baghdad region, has recorded 28 more such allegations, 15 of which have been substantiated, division lawyers say.
These previously undisclosed U.S. military records documenting Iraqi mistreatment of detainees, often accompanied by photos showing prisoners bruised or cut, highlight what U.S. commanders are calling a high-priority concern. As Iraq's military and police assume greater responsibility for fighting insurgents, senior U.S. officers say they have cautioned Iraqi authorities repeatedly -- in formal letters from commanders and in face-to-face encounters at detention centers and elsewhere -- against abusing prisoners.
This effort has led to friction between U.S. and Iraqi forces in the field, with Iraqis at times questioning demands for humane treatment of enemy fighters who themselves show no respect for the laws of war. U.S. officers say they regularly warn the Iraqis that failure to curtail abusive behavior could tarnish the image of the new security services, risking a loss of Iraqi public support and jeopardizing U.S. and other foreign assistance.
Privately, U.S. commanders also express worry about their troops getting drawn into an Iraqi dirty war, particularly as several thousand military advisers embed this year with Iraqi units, putting them in a position to witness abusive action or be accused of acquiescing to it. The U.S. military has spent the past year struggling to get out from under the shadow of mistreatment by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In a letter last month to troops preparing to serve as advisers to Iraqi units, Army Gen. George Casey, the senior U.S. officer in Iraq, said one of their principal missions would be to ensure that Iraqi forces understood and complied with proper standards of detainee treatment.
"It is very important that we never turn a blind eye to abuses, thinking that what Iraqis do with their own detainees is 'Iraqi business,' " Casey wrote, according to a copy of the letter made available to The Washington Post. "Nor can we wink at suspected transgressions."
On April 29, Lt. Gen. John Vines, the senior U.S. tactical commander, issued an order requiring all U.S. forces to prevent, where possible, any abusive treatment by Iraqi forces and to report all such incidents of abuse up the chain of command.
"We don't expect our soldiers to do a formal investigation, but we expect them to get the basic facts -- what Iraqi unit did this, what are the names of the soldiers involved, who else witnessed it -- and get statements and photos the best they can," said a senior lawyer on Vines's staff who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The lawyer said command staff members had not focused on how to approach the issue of Iraqi treatment of detainees until they arrived in February and received the confidential records compiled by the 1st Cavalry. Those records revealed a range of methods in use. A summary page, shown to The Post, cited "assault with fists, wooden sticks, cords and weapons" and "beatings done with electrical cables." It also said "electrical shock and choking" were "consistently used to achieve confessions."
"Once we saw that, we began to think through the process of what we needed to do, and, quite frankly, we're still working through it," the lawyer said.
Iraq's treatment of detainees has drawn criticism from human rights groups. A 94-page report by Human Rights Watch in January concluded that abuse by the Iraqi police and intelligence forces had become "routine and commonplace." Based on research between July and October last year, the study found "little indication" of any serious measures "to enforce existing laws and put an end to" the mistreatment.
Senior members of the new Iraqi government have assured U.S. commanders in private conversations that they are aware of the problem and committed to addressing it, according to several U.S. officers. But spokesmen for the Defense and Interior ministries and the prime minister's office said this week that they were unaware of specific U.S. military reports alleging abuse of detainees by Iraqi forces.
The issue has gained urgency in recent months as Iraqi security forces have expanded and begun conducting counterinsurgency operations on their own. Prisoners taken in operations led by U.S. forces are still sent to U.S.-run detention facilities. But insurgents captured in Iraqi-led raids now often end up being detained by the Iraqis and at times subjected to harsh interrogations.
Iraqi forces receive some instruction about human rights and the laws of armed conflict during U.S.-designed basic training programs, and U.S. soldiers are giving additional guidance to those responsible for running prisons. But the advice has tended to be general, lacking many of the specifics in the U.S. Army's recently revised field manual for handling detainees.
"We've given them recommended guidance," said Capt. Jacob Lilly, the 3rd Infantry's chief counsel for detainee operations. "But we haven't gotten that detailed."
Under the order issued by Vines, reports of alleged Iraqi abuses documented by U.S. forces are to be reviewed by division commanders, then passed up to Vines and Casey and forwarded to Iraqi provincial or national authorities.
Sometimes senior U.S. commanders become personally involved. This month, for instance, Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is leading the effort to develop Iraq's security forces, delivered what witnesses described as a stern warning to senior members of the Major Crimes Unit, the country's equivalent of the FBI.
The warning followed an incident at the Rusafa police station in Baghdad during a visit by U.S. forces and an international police liaison team. Hearing screams in a second-floor room, the group investigated and found an Iraqi brigadier general and two police commissioners with a detainee who was "crying and hopping from foot to foot," according to a U.S. report. The detainee had been "questioned on theft of money" from Iraq's banking system, the report said.
The Iraqi general acknowledged that the detainee had been hit a few times "to get more information," the report said. Searching the room, the U.S. visitors identified "two plastic hoses, a large rolling pin with a rope through it and a hand-cranked generator with wire clamps," the report said.
The group went to see an Iraqi two-star general at the station about the matter, but the general offered "no response," the report said. Returning to the interrogation room, members of the group saw the detainee being questioned again and observed that "he had changed his story about what had happened to him." They then removed the man from the station "for his own safety," the report said.
Petraeus, according to participants in the meeting, told the members of the Major Crimes Unit that such mistreatment would jeopardize their operation by undermining public and international regard for their activities. "You can't allow the new Iraq to treat people the way Saddam did," he reportedly said.
The head of the Major Crimes Unit has told U.S. officers that the incident is under investigation and that the findings will be reported to the interior minister.
In classes and conversations on the handling of detainees, Iraqi soldiers often challenge the idea that international human rights conventions should apply to insurgents, several officers said.
"One of the most frequent questions we're asked is, 'Why do we have to treat these people humanely, because their only aim is to kill us?' " said Col. William Hudson, senior lawyer for the 3rd Infantry Division.
Lilly concurred. "The number one question we get from Iraqi interrogators is, 'How am I going to break these guys if I can't use physical force?' " he said.
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.