An office under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, seen here in Baghdad… (Hadi Mizban, AP )
Reporting from Baghdad — Elite units controlled by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's military office are ignoring members of parliament and the government's own directive by operating a clandestine jail in Baghdad's Green Zone where prisoners routinely face torture to extract confessions, Iraqi officials say.
Iraqi legislators and security officials have been joined by the International Committee of the Red Cross in expressing concern about the facility, called Camp Honor. In a confidential letter to the prime minister, the Red Cross requested immediate access to the jail and added that there could be three more connected to it where detainees also are being mistreated.
Iraq's Justice Ministry ordered Camp Honor shut down in March after parliament's human rights committee toured the center and said it had uncovered evidence of torture. The Human Rights Ministry denied Wednesday that it was still in operation. But several Iraqi officials familiar with the site said that anywhere from 60 to 120 people have been held there since it was ordered closed.
Allegations that the jail has continued to function are likely to launch a fresh debate about the breadth of powers belonging to Maliki and his closest associates. The jail falls under the prime minister's Office of the Commander in Chief, which supervises a vast military and security apparatus.
Maliki supporters say he is committed to protecting human rights, but needs broad powers to navigate a treacherous domestic environment. The prime minister, a Shiite Muslim, is reluctant to loosen his grip on the army, police and his elite combat units, believing that any compromise would make it easier for opponents to organize a coup or political conspiracy, or would allow armed Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups to gain strength.
Maliki also has refused to permit his main political rival, the Iraqiya bloc led by Iyad Allawi, to choose the next defense minister, in defiance of an understanding on division of authority that took months to hammer out after inconclusive elections in March 2010. The position has remained vacant, with Maliki filling it for now.
The agreement also called for all security forces to be removed from the prime minister's office and restored to the normal chain of command. But the protracted negotiations over who should hold the key defense and interior ministries, which could stretch into next year, have allowed Maliki to preserve his authority.
The dispute over who directs Iraq's security forces is fueling a sense of drift as tens of thousands of U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq. U.S. forces ended combat operations last year, and the remaining 46,000 troops are to leave by the end of this year. The United States has offered to keep some troops in Iraq after that deadline to help ensure stability, but that requires Iraqi consent, which is far from certain.
Adnan Assadi, a member of the prime minister's political coalition who serves as deputy interior minister, said in an interview that it was vital for Maliki to maintain control of Iraq's security because he will be blamed for any failures.
"The ministries of Defense and Interior are like the right and left hand for the commander in chief," Assadi said.
Until the inspection in March, the Camp Honor jail had illustrated the prime minister's supremacy on security matters. He has faced complaints since 2008 about his control of the U.S.-trained counter-terrorism service and a security force known as the Baghdad Brigade, or Brigade 56. The units possessed their own jails, investigative judges and interrogators, answering only to the prime minister's military office.
Critics say that many of those jailed by the forces are locked up for political reasons, because of personal feuds or to cover up corruption. But because of the opaque nature of the security forces and the jails they run, it is difficult to determine whether that is true.
The prime minister's military office promised reforms when, in April 2010, it was found to be running a separate secret jail in western Baghdad, where more than 400 inmates had been held for months. But nothing changed at Camp Honor, where family members and attorneys were barred from seeing detainees and allegations of torture were rampant.
Lawmakers, security officials and the Red Cross letter expressed deep concern that despite parliament's success in extracting the pledge to close Camp Honor, people were still being imprisoned there.
Detainees "are still being held by the counter-terrorism center or Brigade 56 in the same location they declared was shut down," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, the head of parliament's human rights committee. "These people are held 30-50 days. After they have obtained confessions, the detainee is transferred to Rusafa with his confession," he added, referring to one of Baghdad's main detention facilities.