By Sudarsan Raghavan and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 29 -- Scavengers siphoning gasoline from a pipeline in the southern city of Diwaniyah caused an explosion Tuesday that killed 50 people and wounded 80, officials said. Meanwhile, a visiting Bush administration official said that Iraq's future depended on its ability to enforce the rule of law but that it must set its own legal standards.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales spoke to reporters after a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. Gonzales said the two discussed the use of "extraordinary measures" to deal with terrorists, criminals and prisoners.
"It is sometimes a difficult decision to make, as to what is the appropriate line, what is allowed under the law, under the constitution," Gonzales said. "The path the Iraqi officials will take will be a decision made by the Iraqi government, but we emphasize the importance of the rule of law." He did not elaborate.
Gonzales played a key role in drafting detention policies that many critics say led to the torture of suspected terrorists and other detainees. He wrote a 2002 Justice Department memo that narrowed the definition of torture and argued that President Bush could override anti-torture laws in some cases.
When asked to distinguish between the kinds of torture he authorized and the kinds being carried out in Iraq by militias with ties to governing parties, Gonzales appeared taken aback.
"It is against the law," he said. "We have a domestic law prohibiting torture. There are international prohibitions against torture. We are a party to the convention against torture. The president has been very, very clear: This government does not engage in torture."
When asked about the status of two ongoing investigations by the U.S. military -- one involving the alleged rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by soldiers in the town of Mahmudiyah and the other stemming from accusations that Marines killed 24 civilians in the town of Haditha -- Gonzales replied:
"There are certain expectations of our men and women in uniform, and 99.9 percent of our soldiers meet the highest professional and ethical standards under very difficult circumstances," he said. "But for those who do not, if there are allegations of wrongdoing, we consider that to be very serious, and they will be investigated, and they will be held accountable. So that is my message to the Iraqi people."
In Washington, meanwhile, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi said Tuesday that he had delivered a message from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to the White House last week expressing concern about whether the United States would hold steady to its commitment to Iraq -- and asking whether the Bush administration was developing an alternative Iraq strategy ahead of fall's congressional elections.
Abdul Mahdi said he personally delivered the message from Sistani, the preeminent Shiite cleric in Iraq, during talks on Thursday with President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"It's a critical moment. We want to be sure that we understand perfectly what's going on -- the real strategy of the U.S. in Iraq," he said. "The main message is that Iraqis are sticking to the main principles of the constitution and democracy. They want to know what the main orientation of American policies is, especially before the election."
"We want to understand if there's a Plan B," a reference to deliberations about a timetable for withdrawal of American troops or other steps in response to domestic public opinion, Abdul Mahdi said. Bush, he said, was "very clear" in confirming his full commitment not to withdraw U.S. forces before Iraqi troops are capable of assuming responsibility for security.
Tuesday's violence in Iraq underscored the challenges of imposing the rule of law in a nation besieged by sectarian violence, militias, death squads and desperate economic and social conditions.
The explosion in Diwaniyah, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, came as fuel prices have soared and Iraqis are desperate for sources of power. Iraq's oil supply has been plagued by insurgent attacks, dilapidated infrastructure and widespread graft.
The blast resulted when one of the thieves siphoning gasoline from a hole punched in the pipeline was smoking a cigarette, said Hameed Jiaati, the health director in Diwaniyah.
A day earlier in Diwaniyah, militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr fought with U.S.-backed Iraqi in one of the first major clashes between the two forces, reportedly killing 20 Iraqi soldiers and eight civilians.
On Tuesday, officials from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office said the death toll had risen to 73, including 50 militiamen and 23 Iraqi soldiers. The increased toll could not be independently verified.
[Early Wednesday, an explosives-rigged bicycle detonated near an army recruiting center in Hilla, south of Baghdad, killing at least 12 people and wounding 28, the Associated Press cited police as saying.]
At the al-Karama elementary school in Baghdad Tuesday, police discovered 11 bodies about noon. "The corpses were blindfolded and handcuffed behind the backs, and they were shot in different parts of their body," said Brig. Gen. Ihsan Mahmood of the Interior Ministry. "There were torture marks on some of the bodies. Their ages were between 18 and 25 . They wore civilian clothes."
In Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, unidentified gunmen attacked Sadr's local office with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at 6:30 a.m., killing two guards and heavily damaging the building and nearby shops, said Abu Moqtada, a Sadr employee in the office who refused to give his full name.
Sarhan reported from Diwaniyah. Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad, staff writer Robin Wright in Washington and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.