WASHINGTON - U.S.-led occupation forces in Iraq retain an ''unpalatable'' record on human rights more than two years after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke, Amnesty International said Monday.
Failure to put things right could hasten Iraq's descent into all-out civil war, the rights watchdog said. The warning came amid skirmishes between U.S. military leaders and politicians over prospects in Iraq and as reports surfaced that the general commanding U.S.-trained Iraqi troops in Baghdad had been killed by sniper fire.
Detainees wait behind a barbed wire fence during a prisoner release at Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad, in October 2005. Tens of thousands of people have been held "arbitrarily" in Iraq since the start of the US-led invasion in March 2003, creating a situation that is ripe for abuse, Amnesty International said.(AFP/File/Pool/Faleh Kheiber)
Amnesty, in a 48-page report based on interviews with former inmates, said it rejected U.S. and British officials' assurances that prisoners are treated in keeping with international standards.
''The record of these forces, including U.S. forces and their United Kingdom (UK) allies, is an unpalatable one,'' the report said. ''Despite the pre-war rhetoric and post-invasion justifications of U.S. and UK political leaders, and their obligations under international law, from the outset the occupying forces attached insufficient weight to human rights considerations.''
That remains the case today, Amnesty said, although recent violations by the multinational force, also known as the MNF, lack the ''graphic, shock quality'' of images that emerged in April 2004 and February 2006. Those showed U.S. guards torturing and humiliating inmates at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison in the second half of 2003 and British troops beating young Iraqis who had been apprehended during a riot.
''The same failure to ensure due process that prevailed then, however, and facilitated--perhaps even encouraged--such abuses is evidenced today by the continuing detentions without charge or trial of thousands of people in Iraq who are classified by the MNF as 'security internees','' Amnesty said.
Thousands of Iraqis have been detained without charges, trial, or access to lawyers, the report said. More than 200 have been locked up for more than two years and nearly 4,000 for more than a year ''without being given an adequate opportunity to challenge the reasons for their imprisonment,'' it added.
U.S. military officials have said that every detainee is given a form explaining the reasons they were taken into custody and that their files are reviewed every three to four months.
For its part, Britain's defense ministry said international observers had access to its detention centers and that UK troops informed the Red Cross of every detention within 24 hours.
Even so, Amnesty said ''the systems the U.S. and UK use to review detainees' cases fail to meet international standards, including the requirement for court oversight. Detainees are also routinely denied access to lawyers and their families.''
Amnesty's report, ''Beyond Abu Ghraib: Detention and Torture in Iraq,'' discussed human rights violations for which the watchdog blamed multinational forces. It also outlined ''mounting evidence of torture by Iraqi security forces operating alongside the MNF,'' saying that allegations of torture and murder against Iraqi units including the so-called Wolf Brigade ''have not been properly investigated and those responsible [have not been] held to account.''
The document reiterated earlier complaints that U.S. and British government probes of abuses by their forces have targeted junior personnel rather than senior brass and have meted out light punishments.
''Three years after it toppled Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led alliance has failed to put in place measures which respect the basic rights of detainees under its control and to safeguard them from possible torture or other abuses,'' said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program.
''International human rights law applicable in Iraq as well as domestic Iraqi legislation contain safeguards to protect the fundamental rights of people in detention--including the right not to be subjected to torture or ill-treatment. It is high time for all parties to the conflict to start observing the laws to which they have been and remain legally bound,'' said Hadj-Sahraoui.
Amnesty concluded: ''It is imperative that both the MNF and the Iraqi authorities take urgent steps to reassert the importance of fundamental human rights if there is to be any hope of halting Iraq's slide towards ever increasing violence and sectarianism.''
Also Monday, one of the highest-ranking generals in Iraq's new army was killed by sniper fire in western Baghdad, news reports said.
Major General Mubdar Hatim al-Dulaimi commanded all Iraqi army forces in the capital. He was a key figure in U.S. plans for an eventual handover to Iraqi troops and withdrawal from their country and in recent weeks had taken a prominent role in trying to quell sectarian violence following the Feb. 22 bombing of the gold-domed Askariya shrine in the central city of Samarra. The violence has cast a pall over efforts to form a government of national unity.
Before Dulaimi's slaying, General Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, offered a cautiously upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq.
''I wouldn't put a great big smiley face on it but I would say they're going very, very well from everything you look at,'' Pace said Sunday on the NBC television network. He cited last December's elections and the training of Iraqi security forces as signs of progress.
Pace's comments drew fire from Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), a 37-year Marine Corps veteran.
''Why would I believe him?'' Murtha, a prominent critic of President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war, said on the CBS network. ''This administration, including the president, mischaracterized this war for the last two years.''
''The rhetoric is so frustrating,'' Murtha said in response to Pace's comments. ''They keep making statements which are very optimistic, and then it turns out to be the opposite.''
U.S. troops were making an all-out military effort but ''are caught in a civil war,'' he said, chiding the administration for not acknowledging what he saw as reality.
''There's two participants fighting for survival and fighting for supremacy inside that country,'' Murtha said of Iraq. ''And that's my definition of a civil war.''
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