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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Leader Orders Inquiry Into Alleged Abuse of Inmates

The prime minister says his government will investigate questionable practices by Iraqi police.

November 16, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari said Tuesday that prisoners at a makeshift prison established by Interior Ministry employees appeared malnourished and some bore signs of torture. He declared that his government would work to root out questionable practices by the new police.

It was the first time the U.S.-backed government installed in April had acknowledged the apparent abuse of prisoners at one of its facilities. A senior official of the Interior Ministry pledged to fix the problems and to fire or punish offending officers to deter illegal arrests.

Sunni Arabs have long claimed that Shiite Muslim militias close to the political parties that dominate Iraq's ruling coalition are carrying out a shadowy campaign of vendettas against perceived political and sectarian foes. The discovery Sunday of the makeshift prison, with at least 170 prisoners held in murky circumstances, lent credibility to those charges.

Soldiers of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division and Iraqi troops found the prisoners when, acting on a tip and searching for a missing teenager, they demanded to enter the bunker-like building hidden in a quiet, well-to-do neighborhood near Baghdad University.

Journalists have not been given access to the prisoners, who have since been moved to a more appropriate location, according to the government.

But a senior U.S. military officer told The Times earlier, without elaborating, that some inmates had injuries that appeared consistent with abuse. The injuries were significant enough that the medical care was summoned to the site. Jafari said Tuesday that there were apparent "torture marks" on some detainees.

Facing parliamentary elections next month, Jafari's Shiite-led government appeared to want to move quickly to mitigate the ramifications of the reported abuse and address the question of whether other such sites exist.

The U.S. Embassy and multinational forces praised Jafari for his promise to launch a swift investigation. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George W. Casey, the two ranking U.S. officials in Iraq, have discussed the issue with Iraq's leaders "at the highest level," a joint statement said.

The statement called the mistreatment of detainees "totally unacceptable" and said that the U.S. government, including officials from the FBI and Department of Justice, would give technical help "to investigate, prosecute and bring to justice" anyone responsible.

Amnesty International, responding to the report, said it welcomed the Iraqi government's investigation and asked that it be expanded to include all allegations of torture in the country.

Standing outside the facility in the Jadiriya neighborhood Tuesday night, Interior Ministry official Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal blamed the prisoner abuse on inexperienced and untrained officers who were brought into the police force in the chaotic days after the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

The low-slung building, which from the outside appeared to have been constructed as a bomb shelter during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, covers about an acre of southern Baghdad. It is hidden from the main road behind houses and apartment buildings and surrounded by garbage-strewn earthen berms.

"We have pictures and evidence of the prisoners that were harmed, and every Iraqi citizen has the right to punish those who mistreated those prisoners," Kamal said. "Those cases have been handed over to the Iraqi court to decide."

Kamal, the Interior Ministry's undersecretary for security, said that prisoners should never have been taken to such a facility.

"This place is not suitable for holding people. It was a shelter," he said. Kamal rejected requests to allow journalists to enter, saying it was against his orders. If it is like other Iraqi bomb shelters constructed during Hussein's rule, however, the building would be mostly underground and consist of cavernous, chilly halls.

The Interior Ministry official, who spoke to several Western reporters while accompanied to the site by U.S. and Iraqi troops, emphasized that the abuse was counter to the wishes of the Jafari government.

"We don't want to rationalize or protect anyone," he said. "The people who conducted this act were wrong. It was against humanity to treat [prisoners] like this. It contradicts the principle of our new government and the concept of humanity and human rights."

Kamal said he saw the uncovering of the site as a chance for "a new beginning" in the rebuilding of the ministry, which oversees Iraq's police and security services.

In 2003, he said, officials of the U.S.-led administration in Iraq rushed to rebuild the Iraqi police force, and "they did not consider the social or political background" of inductees.

"We also have in the Ministry of Interior lists of criminals who are still in service. They must all be removed," he said.

In the last three months, 400 sergeants and captains had quietly been discharged, he said.

Jafari, speaking at a news conference, pledged that a full investigation would be conducted by a ministerial level committee that would report back in two weeks. Kamal said it would be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Rosh Shawais, a Kurd.

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Times staff writer Solomon Moore contributed to this report.

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