Inspectors Find More Torture at Iraqi Jails

A U.S.-Iraqi inspection team photographed men being held at an Interior Ministry detention center in Baghdad Feb. 16.
A U.S.-Iraqi inspection team photographed men being held at an Interior Ministry detention center in Baghdad Feb. 16. (Photos Provided To The Washington Post)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 24, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Last Nov. 13, U.S. soldiers found 173 incarcerated men, some of them emaciated and showing signs of torture, in a secret bunker in an Interior Ministry compound in central Baghdad. The soldiers immediately transferred the men to a separate detention facility to protect them from further abuse, the U.S. military reported.

Since then, there have been at least six joint U.S.-Iraqi inspections of detention centers, most of them run by Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated Interior Ministry. Two sources involved with the inspections, one Iraqi official and one U.S. official, said abuse of prisoners was found at all the sites visited through February. U.S. military authorities confirmed that signs of severe abuse were observed at two of the detention centers.

But U.S. troops have not responded by removing all the detainees, as they did in November. Instead, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials, only a handful of the most severely abused detainees at a single site were removed for medical treatment. Prisoners at two other sites were removed to alleviate overcrowding. U.S. and Iraqi authorities left the rest where they were.

This practice of leaving the detainees in place has raised concerns that detainees now face additional threats. It has also prompted fresh questions from the inspectors about whether the United States has honored a pledge by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that U.S. troops would attempt to stop inhumane treatment if they saw it.

Pace said at a news conference Nov. 29 with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, "It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene to stop it." Turning to Pace, Rumsfeld responded: "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it."

"If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it," Pace answered.

The Iraqi official familiar with the joint inspections said detainees who are not moved to other facilities are left vulnerable. "They tell us, 'If you leave us here, they will kill us,' " said the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because, he said, he and other Iraqis involved with inspections had received death threats.

The U.S. official involved in the inspections, who would not be identified by name, described in an e-mail the abuse found during some of the visits since the Nov. 13 raid: "Numerous bruises on the arms, legs and feet. A lot of the Iraqis had separated shoulders and problems with their hands and fingers too. You could also see strap marks on some of their backs."

"I was not in charge of the team who went to the sites. If so, I would have taken them out," the U.S. official wrote, referring to the detainees. "We set a precedent and we were given guidance" from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "but for some reason it is not being followed."

Maj. Gen. John D. Gardner, the commander of U.S. detention operations in Iraq, said in an interview, "I would strongly disagree with the statement that Americans are seeing cases of abuse and not doing anything."

The issue goes to the heart of U.S. relations with the Iraqi government, which is led by Shiite religious parties. The Interior Ministry, whose forces are overwhelmingly Shiite, has been accused by Sunni Arabs and U.S. officials of operating death squads that target Sunni men. Increasingly, Interior Ministry forces are being accused of other crimes as well, including kidnapping for ransom. The Interior Ministry forces have also been accused of deferring to militias belonging to the Shiite religious parties, from whose ranks many of Iraq's police commandos and other ministry forces are drawn.

The Iraqi government says the cases of abuse, illegal detention and killings by the Shiite death squads are few, and it denies involvement in kidnappings. The U.S. military has said it is devoting 2006 to building up and reforming Iraq's police forces.

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