US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has questioned a policy that requires US military personnel who witness abuse of detainees in Iraqi custody to take “all reasonable actions” to stop or prevent it, a spokesman said.
Mr Rumsfeld seemed taken aback last month when General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, told him at a news conference that all US military personnel had a responsibility to try to stop abuse that they witness.
Mr Rumsfeld has since raised questions about the policy, Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said today.
He indicated a key question is what happens when a permanent, sovereign government is formed in Iraq following elections on December 15.
“Our forces are in a sovereign nation and the law enforcement of that nation is the responsibility of that country,” Mr Whitman said.
At the same time, he said: “This is a new democracy. We know that this is tough stuff, and it’s a change, a dramatic change from the way things were done in the past.”
The problem came to the fore last month when US and Iraqi troops raided an Iraqi interior ministry jail in Baghdad and found about 170 detainees who had been abused and in some cases tortured.
A top commander in Iraq told reporters last week US military intelligence was drawing up a list of other suspected interior ministry jails for inspection by US-Iraqi teams.
Mr Whitman said US service members would be expected to try to persuade Iraqis abusing prisoners that their behaviour was “inappropriate” and to report it up their chain of command.
But General George Casey, the commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I), issued a policy directive earlier this year setting a higher standard of responsibility for US troops who witness abuse of detainees in Iraqi custody.
“It is the responsibility of all MNF-I units and personnel to take all reasonable actions in accordance with the rules of engagement to stop or prevent any observed or suspected instances of physical or mental abuse that could lead to serious injury or death of a detained person in Iraqi custody,” it said.
The directive said soldiers should “promptly report the details through the chain of command so that those acts can be appropriately addressed with Iraqi government officials”.
Asked whether Mr Rumsfeld was questioning what was meant by “all reasonable actions”, Mr Whitman said: “That would certainly be part of it.”
“The secretary, in the way that he typically does, asks questions to try and understand and ensure that the policies and procedures for our service members are well understood in a way that doesn’t conflict,” Mr Whitman said.