BAGHDAD — In a case roiling Iraq's fragile political system, the nation's Shiite Muslim interior minister sought Thursday to justify the actions of security forces accused of starving and beating 169 mostly Sunni prisoners, while acknowledging that at least seven of the detainees had been tortured.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who has had ties to a Shiite militia, argued that prisoners found in a bunker-like Baghdad facility that U.S. troops entered Sunday night had been legally arrested based on proper evidence and documents. Jabr added that in many cases, the prisoners were terrorists who had killed scores of innocent Iraqi children.
"OK, there were signs of torture," Jabr said. "And for that we will punish those responsible. But there were no killings and no beheadings, as some have said."
The U.S. Embassy, however, reacted sharply, issuing a statement that warned, "Even one case is too much, anywhere, at anyplace and anytime, in Iraq."
The U.S. also said it would not tolerate sectarian militias controlling Iraqi jails or running other security functions.
"We have made clear to the Iraqi government that there must not be militia or sectarian control or direction of Iraqi security forces, facilities or ministries," said embassy spokesman Jim Bullock. "The U.S. will assist the Iraqi government in every way to conduct a fair investigation."
With national parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. 15, the furor has cast a spotlight on two key questions concerning Iraq's political future: whether the nation's major ethnic and religious groups can live together under the rule of law and whether Iraq will revert to a system in which the group in power feels entitled to exploit the others with impunity.
During the Saddam Hussein era, Iraq's Sunni Arab minority dominated the military and political hierarchies, and Shiites and Kurds were often persecuted. Now, the once-victimized groups control the nascent government, and the Sunnis are seen as the primary force behind the bloody insurgency.
Jabr, the interior minister, has links to the Shiite-run Badr Brigade militia, which Sunni politicians have accused of sectarian violence. His defense of his employees was a sharp departure from the Iraqi government's initial response to the prison discovery when confronted by senior U.S. officials. Both Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Ali Kamal acknowledged that the prisoners were tortured and promised a speedy cleanup.
U.S. military officials, publicly and privately, have also expressed little doubt that the Interior Ministry facility was used for abuse.
At a news conference Thursday, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch provided a fuller account of what the troops led by Brig. Gen. Karl Horst saw and did when they went to the facility looking for a missing 15-year-old boy, who still has not been found.
"When he entered ... Gen. Horst saw 169 individuals that had been detained. Some of those individuals looked like they had been abused, malnourished and mistreated," Lynch said. "Gen. Horst and his soldiers took control of the facility, took appropriate actions with the Iraqi leadership and the Iraqi government."
Medical treatment was ordered for the inmates after the discovery. Next, they were transferred to the U.S.-run prison complex at Abu Ghraib to have more room and better food and care. Abu Ghraib was at the center of a scandal last year involving abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel.
Some Sunni Arabs voiced satisfaction Thursday, saying their allegations that the Shiite-led ruling coalition has allowed Shiite militias to arrest, abuse, torture and, in some cases, kill Sunnis had been proved by American forces.
Others argued that the discovery demonstrated that today's Shiite-dominated special security services were capable of as much cruelty as that inflicted by Hussein's secret police, who abused prisoners in scores of facilities, including Abu Ghraib.
Some political analysts predict that the reports of abuse will work against the mainly Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which won the January election, and enhance the stature of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose electoral coalition attempts to transcend divisions by including Sunnis and prominent members of all groups.
"This definitely will work against the alliance in the voting," said Qataib Ibrahim Jabbouri, a parliamentary candidate in Tikrit running on Allawi's slate. In 2003, Allawi was himself the subject of rumors that he had executed prisoners in a Baghdad jail, a charge he has denied.
"We Sunnis are so happy that the Americans showed the truth of what the Sunnis have been saying all along," said retired biology teacher Sadi Jumma. Others questioned why U.S. troops, the strongest force in the country, had waited so long to act on the accusations.