WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 — The Bush administration is seeking to block a group of American troops who were tortured in Iraqi prisons during the Persian Gulf war in 1991 from collecting any of the hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen Iraqi assets they won last summer in a federal court ruling against the government of Saddam Hussein.
In a court challenge that the administration is winning so far but is not eager to publicize, administration lawyers have argued that Iraqi assets frozen in bank accounts in the United States are needed for Iraqi reconstruction and that the judgment won by the 17 former American prisoners should be overturned.
This was a major human rights decision.
It never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that I would then see our government coming in on the side of Saddam Hussein and his regime to absolve them of responsibility for the brutal torture of Americans.
John Norton Moore, one of the lawyers and a professor of national security law at the University of Virginia
If the administration succeeds, the former prisoners would be deprived of the money they won and, they say, of the validation of a judge's ruling that documented their accounts of torture by the Iraqis — including beatings, burnings, starvation, mock executions and repeated threats of castration and dismemberment.
"I don't want to say that I feel betrayed, because I still believe in my country," said Lt. Col. Dale Storr, whose Air Force A-10 fighter jet was shot down by Iraqi fire in February 1991.
"I've always tried to keep in the back of my mind that we were never going to see any of the money," said Colonel Storr, who was held by the Iraqis for 33 days — a period in which he says his captors beat him with clubs, broke his nose, urinated on him and threatened to cut off his fingers if he did not disclose military secrets. "But it goes beyond frustration when I see our government trying to pretend that this whole case never happened."
Another former prisoner, David Eberly, a retired Air Force colonel whose F-15 fighter was shot down over northwest Iraq and who said his interrogators repeatedly pointed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger on an empty chamber, said he was surprised by the administration's eagerness to overturn the judgment.
"The administration wants $87 billion for Iraq," he said. "The money in our case is just a drop of blood in the bucket."
Officials at the Justice and State Departments, which are overseeing the administration's response to the case, say they are sensitive to the claims of the former prisoners, who brought suit against Iraq under a 1996 law that allows foreign governments designated as terrorist sponsors to be sued for injuries.
But they say the case cannot be allowed to hinder American foreign policy and get in the way of the administration's multibillion-dollar reconstruction efforts in Iraq — an argument that federal appeals courts seem likely to accept.
"No amount of money can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering that they went through at the hands of a truly brutal regime," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman. "It was determined earlier this year by Congress and the administration that those assets were no longer assets of Iraq, but they were resources required for the urgent national security needs of rebuilding Iraq."
In a related case, a federal judge in New York ruled in September that the families of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks could not claim any part of about $1.7 billion in frozen Iraqi assets in the United States.
The judge noted that President Bush had signed an executive order in March, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, that confiscated Iraqi assets and converted them into assets of the United States government. In May, after Mr. Hussein was ousted, Mr. Bush issued a declaration that effectively removed Iraq from a list of countries liable for some court judgments involving past rights abuses and links to terrorism.
In a sworn court filing in the case for the former prisoners, L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator in Iraq, said the money won by the former prisoners had already been "completely obligated or expended" in reconstruction efforts.
"These funds are critical to maintaining peace and stability in Iraq," he said. "Restricting these funds as a result of this litigation would affect adversely the ability of the United States to achieve security and stability in the region."
The case dates from April of last year, when the 17 former prisoners and their families filed suit in the Federal District Court here against Mr. Hussein and his government, seeking damages for the physical and emotional injuries suffered as a result of torture during the prisoners' captivity. The prisoners represented all branches of the military.
The Iraqi government made no effort to respond to the lawsuit. In July, three months after the fall of Mr. Hussein, Judge Richard W. Roberts ordered the former Iraqi government to pay damages totaling nearly $1 billion — $653 million in compensatory damages, $306 million in punitive damages.
"No one would subject himself for any price to the terror, torment and pain experienced by these American P.O.W.'s," the judge wrote. But he said that "only a very sizable award would be likely to deter the torture of American P.O.W.'s by agencies or instrumentalities of Iraq or other terrorist states in the future."
The lawyers who brought the case on behalf of the former prisoners said such a huge penalty against Iraq would discourage other governments from torturing American troops.
"This was a major human rights decision," said John Norton Moore, one of the lawyers and a professor of national security law at the University of Virginia. "It never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that I would then see our government coming in on the side of Saddam Hussein and his regime to absolve them of responsibility for the brutal torture of Americans."
The administration moved within days of Judge Roberts's decision to block the former prisoners from collecting any money. On July 30, the judge reluctantly sided with the government, saying Mr. Bush's actions after the overthrow of Mr. Hussein had barred the transfer of the frozen assets to the former prisoners.
He said he had no other choice even though the administration's position "that the P.O.W.'s are unable to recover any portion of their judgment as requested, despite their sacrifice in the service of their country, seems extreme." The former prisoners are appealing the case through the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Stephen A. Fennell, a Washington lawyer who is also representing the former prisoners, said the Bush administration had rejected a proposal that would have allowed the United States to delay the payments to his clients for months or years — until after the reconstruction of Iraq was well under way. "My guys are obviously real patriots, and they authorized us to tell the government that we were willing to wait," he said. "But that was turned down."
Cynthia Acree, whose husband, Clifford, is a Marine colonel who was held by the Iraqis for 47 days, said that "the money is not the issue and it never has been."
She said Judge Roberts's ruling that detailed her husband's torture — including beatings that resulted in a skull fracture and broken nose, as well as mock executions and threats of castration — had been "a tremendous gift" to her husband.
"I remember it so well, the look on my husband's face when he heard the decision, because finally there was a public record," she said. "But now, our government wants to act like none of this happened, to throw out the entire case. My husband is an active-duty Marine colonel, and President Bush is his commander in chief. But I'm not. And I can say that I feel betrayed."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company