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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Raid Seen as Boost to U.S. Troops' Image

Army commander says the discovery of a prison where detainees were apparently abused has prompted praise from Sunni Arabs.

November 17, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A top U.S. military commander here said Wednesday that he believed the discovery by American and Iraqi troops of a detention facility where Sunni Arab prisoners were apparently tortured would help the country's political situation because it proved that U.S. forces did not play favorites in Iraq.

Army Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., commander of U.S.-led troops in Baghdad, said he was getting positive responses from the Sunni community, which has been at the core of the anti-U.S. insurgency.

"We're getting some feedback that this inquiry into [the] Jadiriya [neighborhood facility] has meant an awful lot to people in the Sunni community toward supporting the electoral process," Webster said.

Meanwhile, military officials on Wednesday reported the deaths of seven more U.S. servicemen. Five Marines were killed in a battle in Ubaydi in which 16 insurgents died, the Marines said. One more Marine was reported killed by a car bomb near Karmah on Tuesday and a U.S. soldier in Baghdad died of injuries from a roadside bombing Tuesday.

At least 2,080 Americans troops have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, according to independent groups.

The discovery Sunday of 170 malnourished and ill-treated prisoners in a bunker-like building of the Iraqi Interior Ministry has sparked anger among Sunni political leaders who say it offers proof of the abuse long ignored by the Shiite and Kurd-dominated Iraqi government.

"This is not the only place where torture takes place," Omar Hajail of the Sunni-based Iraqi Islamic Party said at a news conference.

But the feedback also has been positive, Webster said.

"We have new reporting from Sunnis telling us how wonderful it is to find out that we really meant what we said when we said, 'Hey, we're just trying to be fair here, we're not supporting Shia or Sunni, we just want to support the rule of law,' " Webster told reporters.

Sunni Arabs have complained for months about predawn raids in which relatives were arrested without warrants and whose bodies were found later in dumps, sewage treatment facilities and on barren roads near the Iranian border. Many had been handcuffed, blindfolded and shot in the head. In addition, dozens of bodies have borne signs of torture -- bruises, broken bones and, in some cases, gaping wounds, apparently caused by drills.

Prisoners released from Iraqi detention facilities have also complained of ill treatment at the hands of police. Some said they were handcuffed and hung from their wrists. Others said they were beaten with pipes, cables and rifle butts. Several former inmates have alleged that they were subjected to electric shocks.

Moreover, some Iraqis have complained that family members are taken away to unknown fates while U.S. troops stand by.

Webster acknowledged that it was often impossible for a U.S. officer on the ground to distinguish between lawful arrests by uniformed Iraqis and the extralegal actions of militia members, who might have been members of police agencies or dressed in similar uniforms.

"Fighting an irregular war is an extremely difficult conversion for any regular army, even a superpower," Webster said.

In light of the discovery, the Iraqi government has pledged to clean up the Interior Ministry and bring those responsible to justice.

A day after The Times reported the raid on the detention center, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite Muslim, pledged to investigate the abuse allegations. In addition, the Interior Ministry promised to root out rogue elements of the police force.

American military officials have signaled their intention to assist Iraqi authorities in searching for other suspect detention centers in Baghdad. In this case, they said, they uncovered the suspicious activities while searching for a missing 15-year-old boy, who has not been found.

An Iraqi army brigade commander raised his suspicions about the facility with his U.S. counterpart, leading to the Army's decision to investigate the site. When the soldiers commanded by Brig. Gen. Karl Horst went inside, they found prisoners in conditions that compelled them to send for medics. However, their injuries were not sufficient for them to be hospitalized.

It is still unclear who was in control of the facility, and U.S. officials said they could not confirm neighbors' reports that it was members of the Shiite-based Badr Brigade militia. No one was arrested in spite of the signs of torture on some of the prisoners. The guards were dispersed and the prisoners moved to an undisclosed location, where they are said to be receiving care while their cases are reviewed.

Webster leads the 3rd Infantry Division, which entered President Saddam Hussein's palace complex on the west bank of the Tigris River in April 2003, in effect ousting the leader. Since January, the division has been back in Baghdad, trying to help secure the capital and fight the insurgency.

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