The Army announced yesterday a jump in the number of criminal investigations it has launched into detainee deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, among them a case involving one of Saddam Hussein's top generals, who died last November while being interrogated by U.S. soldiers.
A senior military official, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said the Army has completed or is still conducting criminal probes into 33 cases involving the deaths of 32 detainees in Iraq and five in Afghanistan.
The new tally amounts to an increase of eight cases over the 25 reported on May 4 by the Army's top criminal investigator as the scandal over abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison was erupting.
It also pointed to wider problems beyond the Abu Ghraib facility, raising the possibility that coercive interrogations and other mistreatment by U.S. soldiers may have resulted in the deaths of some detainees.
In the case of Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who once headed Hussein's air defenses, the Pentagon initially attributed his death last November to natural causes. But an autopsy released by the Pentagon yesterday said Mowhoush, who was found in a sleeping bag, died of "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression." At the briefing, the military official confirmed a Denver Post report Wednesday that his case is being probed as a homicide.
The Pentagon released autopsy reports on 22 other prisoners, with causes of death including "multiple gunshot wounds," "strangulation," "blunt force injuries and asphyxia," as well as some natural causes.
Included in other deaths under criminal investigation that were first revealed by the Denver Post are a detainee suspected of having been choked in January while his arms were shackled over his head to his cell door at a U.S. base; a detainee who died during interrogation by U.S. Special Forces at Abu Ghraib in November; and a prisoner who died at an interrogation facility in Baghdad in June from an apparent blow to the head.
Army officials attributed part of the increase in the number of death investigations to the inclusion of three detainees who died outside a facility but in the custody of U.S. soldiers. The previously reported tally covered only deaths inside detention centers.
In one case, the senior military official said, a soldier shot and killed an Afghani who had lunged toward a weapon. In another instance, an Iraqi drowned after being forced off a bridge. In the third case, a U.S. soldier shot an Iraqi who had lunged at a sergeant escorting the Iraqi.
The rest of the reported increase was attributed by officials to a further review of records dating to 2002.
Investigations into more than two-thirds of the cases have been closed, with only one U.S. soldier reported disciplined. In that homicide case, in September 2003, a soldier shot and killed an Iraqi prisoner who was throwing rocks at him.
The soldier was charged with using excessive force, reduced in rank and dismissed from the military. Another case, which also was ruled a homicide, involved a contractor employed by the CIA and has been turned over to the Justice Department.
Nine Army death cases remain open. One is suspected of having resulted from natural causes. The other eight have been classified as homicides and involve suspected assaults of detainees before or during interrogation sessions, the senior military official said.
The longest-running investigations involve two deaths in December 2002 at a U.S.-run detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan. Mullah Habibullah died of a pulmonary embolism due to blunt force injuries to the legs, according to an autopsy report released yesterday. A detainee known only as Dilawar died from blunt force injuries to his lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.
Asked why the probes have taken so long, the military official said the cases were complicated.
"We do cases to a standard and not to time," he said. "I understand that 17 months is a long time, but I would rather have you ask me why it's taking me so long than you ask me about why we didn't do a good job on the investigation."
Of the cases closed so far, 15 deaths were attributed to a natural cause, such as a heart attack or illness, or to undetermined factors.
Four cases, involving a total of eight Iraqi deaths, were ruled justifiable homicides, meaning U.S. soldiers were found to have killed in self-defense or to prevent an escape.
Three of the four cases took place at Abu Ghraib -- in November 2003, March 2004 and last month. The fourth occurred at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq in April 2003.
As for assaults of prisoners that did not result in death, the Army has initiated investigations into 16 cases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has closed 14 of them, the official said, without providing the results.
Earlier this month, Les Brownlee, the Army's acting secretary, testified that investigations are underway into an additional 42 potential cases of misconduct against civilians that occurred outside detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This week, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, put the total number of detainee abuse cases investigated since the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan in late 2001 at "around 75."