BAGHDAD — The public war on the Iraqi insurgency has led to an atmosphere of hidden brutalities, including abuse and torture, carried out against detainees by the nation's special security forces, according to defense lawyers, international organizations and Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights.
Up to 60% of the estimated 12,000 detainees in the country's prisons and military compounds face intimidation, beatings or torture that leads to broken bones and sometimes death, said Saad Sultan, head of a board overseeing the treatment of prisoners at the Human Rights Ministry. He added that police and security forces attached to the Interior Ministry are responsible for most abuses.
The units have used tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's secret intelligence squads, according to the ministry and independent human rights groups and lawyers, who have cataloged abuses.
"We've documented a lot of torture cases," said Sultan, whose committee is pushing for wider access to Iraqi-run prisons across the nation. "There are beatings, punching, electric shocks to the body, including sensitive areas, hanging prisoners upside down and beating them and dragging them on the ground.... Many police officers come from a culture of torture from their experiences over the last 35 years. Most of them worked during Saddam's regime."
The ordeal described by Hussam Guheithi is similar to many cases. When Iraqi national guardsmen raided his home last month, the 35-year-old Sunni Muslim imam said they lashed him with cables, broke his nose and promised to soak their uniforms with his blood. He was blindfolded and driven to a military base, where he was interrogated and beaten until the soldiers were satisfied that he wasn't an extremist.
At the end of nine days, Guheithi said, the guardsmen told him, "You have to bear with us. You know the situation now. We're trying to find terrorists."
The Interior Ministry, responsible for the nation's internal security, acknowledges cases of mistreatment but denies that torture is common. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is a Shiite Muslim, and some Sunni Muslim tribal leaders and politicians have accused the ministry of unfairly targeting Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency.
"There are no official accusations that the ministry's forces are carrying out widespread abuse and torture of detainees," said Col. Adnan Joubouri, a ministry spokesman. "There was some abuse of authority, and those officials responsible are being punished."
U.S. officials, whose image on detainment issues has already been tarnished by the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, say they are troubled by the allegations of torture. They worry that mistreatment by Iraqi police and national guardsmen, thousands of whom were trained by American instructors who sought to steer the departments away from Hussein's corrupt legacy, may be viewed as an extension of Abu Ghraib.
"We understand and we hear that [torture] is potentially happening, and this is an issue we are constantly talking about," said a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. "I think this is an issue no one can afford to ignore."
Stories of torture and abuse against suspected Shiite and Sunni criminals and rebels are unfolding in the midst of the campaign against a relentless insurgency. Iraqi forces are frustrated by their inability to stop car bombings and ambushes that have killed more than 1,000 people in recent weeks.
Rising crime, a shaky court system, the lack of a constitution to define civil rights and an Interior Ministry underequipped to pursue well-armed rebel networks have made human rights less of an immediate concern for Iraqis than bringing order to the nation, Iraqi and U.S. officials say.
Having endured more than two years of violence since the U.S.-led invasion, many Iraqis favor tough measures to end the unrest. The death penalty was recently reinstated, and for much of the country there is an unspoken acceptance -- often rooted in harsh tribal justice -- that intimidation and torture serve a purpose. Such attitudes are complicated by sectarian strains between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Under Hussein, the minority Sunnis were the core of the ruling Baath Party and controlled the country. The new Iraqi government is dominated by Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraq's population. Each side blames the other for the bloodshed. This dynamic poses an incendiary possibility: Accounts of torture in detention given by Sunni extremists might have been fabricated or embellished to help instigate a civil war against Shiites and the government. The Human Rights Ministry says it has encountered made-up allegations of abuse.
"Ninety percent of detainees say that they confessed under torture," said Judge Luqman Thabit Samiraii, head of the 1st Iraqi Central Criminal Court. "Yet 80% of them have no torture marks. But torture does exist during interrogations, I admit that."