BAGHDAD - Iraqi authorities have been torturing and abusing prisoners in jails across the country, current and former Iraqi officials charged.
Deputy Human Rights Minister Aida Ussayran and Gen. Muntadhar Muhi al-Samaraee, a former head of special forces at the Ministry of the Interior, made the allegations two weeks after 169 men who apparently had been tortured were discovered in a south-central Baghdad building run by the Interior Ministry. The men reportedly had been beaten with leather belts and steel rods, crammed into tiny rooms with tens of others and forced to sit in their own excrement.
The hands of Mohammed Khalif, 47, are still in handcuffs he lies in the morgue in Baghdad, last June. Family members say he was abducted by 30 men who arrived in trucks with police insignia. (KRT)
A senior American military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said he suspected that the abuse wasn't isolated to the jail the U.S. military discovered.
Ussayran said abuse was taking place across the country.
In five visits to a women's prison in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district over more than three months, the Human Rights Ministry found that women were being raped by male guards, Ussayran said. That problem continues.
One woman told the Human Rights Ministry that she was raped seven times on the seventh floor of the Interior Ministry, which is notorious to some Iraqi Sunni Muslims and home to intelligence offices. The Human Rights Ministry investigated that, and Ussayran said the problem had been rectified.
No one was able to estimate the extent of the abuse, but the Iraqi government expects the results of the investigation into the Baghdad secret prison and into other prisons by the end of the week, Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said Saturday.
The secret jail was discovered as American officials are training Iraqi forces to take over security as a prelude to withdrawing U.S. troops. But evidence of widespread abuse of prisoners, especially a pattern of Shiite Muslim troops abusing Sunni captives - would raise new questions about whether Iraq's U.S.-backed government seeks to end the abuses of Saddam Hussein's regime or to exact revenge for them.
Iraq's insurgents are mainly Sunnis, who ruled the country under Saddam and now are blamed for bombing Shiite mosques, markets and schools.
"Things have changed since Abu Ghraib," Ussayran said, referring to prisoner abuse at a U.S. military-run prison in Iraq two years ago. "Whoever is captured by the Americans is much happier then those who are captured by our forces. We have some people who are very clever who are looking for other secret prisons. I'm sure that there are more."
Interior Minister Bayn Jabr has downplayed the extent of the problem, saying that only seven prisoners out of the 169 who were discovered at the facility in Baghdad's Jadriyah district had been mistreated.
Jabr is a Shiite with close ties to the Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed militia that's accused of running the jail. The militia is the armed wing of one of Iraq's most influential Shiite political parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Two police officers with knowledge of the jail in Jadriyah said it was run by the Badr Organization, which has been rumored for months to be involved in the torture and deaths of Sunni men who were kidnapped from their homes. Both agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity to prevent retaliation against themselves or their families.
Adnan Thabit, the head of the Interior Ministry's special police commandos, said that while mistakes had been made, perhaps only one detainee out of every 200 had been mistreated.
However, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, told the London newspaper The Observer that Shiites are behind the death squads and secret torture centers.
"People are doing the same as Saddam's time and worse," he said. "It is an appropriate comparison."
In June, Knight Ridder reported that Badr was suspected of carrying out a campaign of intimidation, torture and killing against Sunni men. In a separate report, Knight Ridder documented numerous cases in which men had been detained by people in police vehicles and later were found dead.
In July 2004, a Knight Ridder reporter witnessed prisoners being beaten at the Interior Ministry.
"Don't talk to me about human rights," said one interrogator who punched several prisoners in front of a reporter. He asked not to be named because he frequently worked undercover. "When security settles down, we'll talk about human rights. Right now, I need confessions."
Gen. Al-Samaraee, the special forces chief from January 2005 until July, said it was impossible that the interior minister didn't know that prisoners were being mistreated in Jadriyah. In an interview in Amman, Jordan, he said torture and extrajudicial killings were rampant while he was at the ministry, and were conducted by the Badr Organization.
He said he left the country for medical treatment and decided not to return because he'd received two death threats after he voiced opposition to absorbing Badr members into the Interior Ministry.
He denied accusations by Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the deputy interior minister for intelligence, that he'd left the country after being bailed out of jail for stealing a government car.
While he was at the ministry, al-Samaraee said, Sunni men were beaten, tortured and killed, then thrown on the side of the road or into rivers or left at morgues under fake names. He also charged that secret prisons - for example, in Kut, Hilla, Amara and Basra - are run by militia groups while the interior minister is left in the dark.
"Raids, arrests and torture are always there, and the government can't do anything to secure the country," al-Samaraee said. "Iraq used to have a dictator of mass graves, now we have the democracy of mass graves."
Abu Saad, a former prisoner, recounted his time inside the walls of the Jadriyah jail before he was released two months ago. Half-circles of faded blue, purple and black bruises were still apparent in the hollows below his eyes. Faint red marks around his wrist were evidence of when he was hung upside down in the jail, he said. He unwrapped a bandage around his thumb to show a Knight Ridder reporter the empty nail bed where his fingernail had been torn off.
"I suffered little compared to the men who spent six or seven months inside," he said. "Sometimes we felt that there were officials visiting us, such as the Americans. The guards told us to be quiet, not to say a word or they would beat us. Of course no one found us."
For 40 days, he was blindfolded, allowed to use a toilet every three days and listened and peeked through the bottom of his blindfold to see seven other detainees die.
He didn't know why he was released when he was near death. He was arrested without a warrant, he said.
Several police officials told Knight Ridder that many of the men in the prison were taken without warrants, although the Interior Ministry maintains that all of them were detained legally.
U.S. officials said they were unaware of the most recent apparent abuse at the Interior Ministry, which allegedly had gone on for months.
The American military official said U.S. troops had searched Interior Ministry buildings previously but only after announcing their visits in advance. The most recent discovery was the result of an unannounced visit to the secret jail after Jabr gave permission to go directly to it.
American troops didn't find the 15-year-old boy they were searching for, but soldiers forced their way into three small back rooms, where they found gaunt men piled on top of one another. Other men were found in a locked coat closet.
U.S. advisers act as consultants in the ministry and couldn't have known about the abuse, Maj. Gen. Kamal said.
"Some mistakes have been made because there are a lot of detainees in small detention (centers)," Kamal said. "We have a big number of detainees that never went to the Justice Ministry because of the long judicial procedures."
Gen. William G. Webster, the commander of multinational forces in Baghdad, said that while militias were rumored to be involved in kidnappings and extrajudicial killings of Sunni men, weeding out militias that are among or pose as Iraqi forces was nearly impossible. It's difficult to know if a security officer's allegiance lies with his tribe or religious sect, he said.
Now the American military receives complaints that men in uniforms, police trucks or military vehicles kidnap men from their homes who later are found dead, Webster said. The problem is figuring out who these people are, he said.
"We get lots and lots and lots of reports, tips and rumors and we have to try to sort out which ones we think are real and which aren't," Webster said. " A number of the stories we get these days, people don't call someone else militia but when you get an individual off to the side one on one ... they may whisper in your ear and say very low and slow that it was a member of a militia."
Fadel reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report. A correspondent in Amman, Jordan, also contributed but can't be named for security reasons.
© 2005 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources