Shiite Militias Control Prisons, Official Says

By Jonathan Finer and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 16, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's prison system is overrun with Shiite Muslim militiamen who have freed fellow militia members convicted of major crimes and executed Sunni Arab inmates, the country's deputy justice minister said in an interview this week.

"We cannot control the prisons. It's as simple as that," said the deputy minister, Pusho Ibrahim Ali Daza Yei, an ethnic Kurd. "Our jails are infiltrated by the militias from top to bottom, from Basra to Baghdad."

As a result, Yei has asked U.S. authorities to suspend plans to transfer prisons and detainees from American to Iraqi control. "Our ministry is unprepared at this time to take over the facilities, especially those in areas where Shiite militias exist," he said in a letter to U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John D. Gardner, the official in charge of American detention facilities.

U.S. officials said months ago that they planned to turn over Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and three other American-run facilities to the Iraqi government, but the handoff has been repeatedly pushed back. Gardner has said he will not authorize the transfers until he is convinced that standards of inmate treatment and security match those maintained in U.S.-run facilities.

"We will not transfer the facilities and legal custody of the detainees until each respective facility and the Iraqi Corrections system have demonstrated the ability to maintain the required standards, especially in the areas of care and custody," Gardner said in a written response to questions. "We fully recognize that there are significant challenges that must be overcome but believe that we will be able to address these as we move through 2006 into 2007."

He said Abu Ghraib would be transferred to Iraqi control "in the next few months."

Gardner said the eventual transfer of prisons to Iraqi control would proceed gradually, preceded by several weeks of training for Iraqi guards, conducted by U.S. corrections officers and military police. The Iraqis would then work under the supervision of American guards for at least six months. A U.S. transition team would then be left in place for an additional period before the prison was handed over.

While allegations of abuse at U.S.-run prisons have waned since the 2004 Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, Iraqi facilities have drawn increased scrutiny since a U.S. Army raid exposed torture of dozens of detainees -- most of them Sunnis -- at a secret Interior Ministry facility in the Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriyah.

The prison was widely alleged to have been operated by a special police unit staffed largely by members of the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia with ties to Iraq's largest Shiite political party. The government investigated the facility but never announced the results.

Yei said that because of mounting concern over detention centers run by Iraq's Interior and Defense ministries, where militias retain heavy influence, the police and army have agreed to turn over all their prisoners to the Justice Ministry by the end of the month.

As of early June, there were 7,426 inmates housed in Justice Ministry facilities, Yei said. The Interior Ministry had an additional 1,797 prisoners and the Defense Ministry a smaller number. More than 15,000 inmates were being held in five U.S. prisons in Iraq.

But while a U.N. human rights report issued last month stressed that the Defense and Interior ministries have legal authority to hold inmates only a brief time, Sunni Arabs charge that Sunnis are regularly imprisoned in the centers for months or even more than a year.

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