BAGHDAD - Photo images of U.S. soldiers abusing and humiliating prisoners in Iraq may be just the tip of the iceberg and only a non-military inquiry will expose the full extent of the problem, human rights groups said on Thursday.
In hundreds of interviews with former detainees over the past nine months, rights groups say a clear pattern of abuse has emerged, with the vast majority of prisoners saying they were beaten, hooded, deprived of sleep and often stripped.
An Iraqi man holds an anti-American sign in front of the main gates of the prison of Abu Ghraib west of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad May 5, 2004. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
In some isolated cases the abuse was much worse, they say, with detainees sodomized or sexually assaulted in ways similar to the pictures of abuse that have emerged over the past week.
One international rights group, Christian Peacemaker Teams, which has been operating in Iraq on and off since late 2002, estimated that around 80 percent of former detainees it interviewed had suffered abuse of one form or another.
The U.S. military estimates it has detained around 40,000 Iraqis since taking over the country last year, although most have been released. Around 10,000 remain in custody.
"Iraqis feel that they have been treated as sub-human by the Americans pretty much since the beginning," said Stewart Vriesinga, a coordinator for Christian Peacemakers.
"If that is what is finally coming to light, then what we're seeing now is probably just the tip of the iceberg."
Vriesinga said his organization had taken depositions from Iraqis who said they had been stripped, made to pull their buttocks apart and been kicked in the rectum. In other instances he said female soldiers had detained Iraqis at checkpoints and forced them to expose themselves and simulate fellatio.
Some detainees have even been killed, rights groups and the U.S. military have confirmed. Vriesinga told of an instance last winter when two young men who broke a curfew were forced to jump off a dam into the Tigris river north of Baghdad. One drowned. Others have been shot.
U.S. Army officials said two Iraqi prisoners were killed by U.S. soldiers last year and 10 other deaths among 25 in Iraq and Afghanistan are being investigated.
PUBLIC INQUIRY DEMANDED
"Are Iraqis being treated with respect and dignity and having their rights respected? Certainly not," said Vriesinga.
"There are very few Iraqis left who feel they have any rights that match the rights of an American citizen," he said. "The U.S. military is creating enemies by the thousand."
Amnesty International has said repeatedly over the past year that U.S. soldiers were abusing detainees, first calling for an investigation last July.
The rights group said it hoped the pictures shown over the past week of military police in Abu Ghraib prison forcing naked and hooded detainees to simulate sex acts and other humiliations would add pressure for a full, non-military probe.
"We are demanding an independent, public investigation into this issue because everyone, Iraqis and the American people, have a right to know," said Nicole Choueiry, Amnesty's Middle East spokeswoman.
"The kind of investigation we're talking about is much more than what the military is so far conducting on itself. I don't know what the military is capable of, but there's no way the full truth is going to come out of their investigations."
The new commander of Abu Ghraib, Major General Geoffrey Miller, apologized on Wednesday to all Iraqis on behalf of America and its military, saying the acts perpetrated at the jail were "appalling and embarrassing" and left him chagrined.
So far, President Bush has steered clear of any apology, saying only that he found the images abhorrent.
As pressure grows on the U.S. administration to tackle the issue more aggressively, the Geneva-based International Committee for the Red Cross said on Thursday it had urged Washington repeatedly to take "corrective action" at Abu Ghraib, a prison once notorious under Saddam Hussein.
But Iraq's acting human rights minister suggested those outraged by the acts should also maintain perspective, saying no one should forget what happened under Saddam, whose son once had some 2,000 people executed at Abu Ghraib in one day.
© 2004 Reuters Ltd