The discovery of malnourished detainees, many bearing signs of torture, in an underground bunker at the Iraqi Interior Ministry came after a US Army 3rd Infantry Division soldier investigated an Iraqi family’s complaints that one of its sons was being secretly held.
When US troops raided the facility Sunday night, they expected to find at most 40 detainees, not 173 sickly men and boys, all Sunni Arabs. Iraqi officials have since confirmed that torture implements were also found there.
The revelation of torture of detainees at a secret interrogation center in Baghdad is likely to prove the tip of the iceberg if investigations are widened to look at the overall practices of Iraq’s security services, human rights advocates and some Iraqi politicians say.
But coming to grips with the problem will be difficult.
While Prime Minister Ibrahim al- Jaafari has promised that torture at the facility will be investigated and the perpetrators punished, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and elite units like the Wolf and Volcano brigades, has been the target of widespread abuse allegations for more than a year.
Its paramilitaries largely draw from the members of Shiite militias like the Badr Brigade, which was formed and trained in Iran as opponents of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime, and their members have become deeply embedded in the ministry.
A real effort to clean out the ministry, say human rights workers and Sunni politicians, would require dismissals and arrests that seem unlikely given the country’s sectarian war.
“I hold the view that this case is in no way an anomaly,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many other illegal detention centers either controlled by the Interior ministry or their unofficial agents, both in Baghdad and elsewhere.”
Ms. Whitson says abuse in Iraq is “an institutional problem” and her organization warned of the use of torture at the Interior Ministry in January of this year. Those charges, as now, prompted Prime Minister Jaafari and others to promise comprehensive action would be taken.
“It is leadership that determines whether or not torture takes place, whether people get fired or go on trial,” says Whitson, adding she isn’t aware of any recent arrests or dismissals of interior ministry officials for abuse. “The Iraqi leadership is responsible and they’ve failed.”
Sunni Arabs have been complaining for months to US officials and human rights organizations about torture and disappearances at the ministry. Months ago Sunni politicians like Ala Mekki alleged the Interior Ministry kept secret torture cells in its main compounds in Baghdad.
While the US has touted the human rights component of its police and military training in Iraq, history shows that respect for basic rights like freedom from torture and freedom from unlawful detention are severely eroded in war. US abuses at Abu Ghraib make this point.
And with Iraq’s legacy of brutal politics, limited oversight by the country’s weak courts, and general support for torture and execution by millions of Iraqis – frustrated and angered by an insurgency that kills many more civilians than soldiers – severe abuses were almost inevitable. The apparent pattern of torture in Iraq also leaves the US in a political bind.
“Human rights and the rule of law are central components of our relationship with Iraq and are key areas for US involvement and support,” says Justin Higgins, a State Department spokesman in Washington. “These are allegations of abuses by Iraqis against Iraqi in Iraqi facilities … we want to see them make progress and see them reach the standards that we hold other countries to. We’re counting on the Iraqis to conduct a thorough investigation.”
While the latest revelation won’t help matters among the Sunni Arab minority whose members feed the insurgency, it is being seen as simply the latest confirmation of what they have long thought was happening anyway.
“When the Shiites came into government they introduced their militias into the police forces,” alleges Mr. Mekki, on the political committee for the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the main Sunni Arab groups. “It used to be just the Americans – you might get taken to Camp Bucca and eventually released if there was no evidence against you. But these people in police uniforms cut the story short: Abductions, torture with drills and pulled fingernails, bodies thrown into the street have become the norm.”
The Monitor met with more than a dozen Sunni families in Baghdad in September who alleged abuse and murder by Interior Ministry officials. Most of the dead were tortured.
Ammar Hamid Khalaf Muhammed Hummos related how his two brothers Hamid and Rafa were abducted by men in police uniforms on a street in Zafranaiyah, on the outskirts of Baghdad, this May, and how he later received word that the brothers were being held in the Shiite city of Kut, and that for $8,000 they’d be released.
The family didn’t come up with the money, and near tears he showed photos of his brothers’ badly mutilated bodies, which were recovered in a ditch near Kut. “Pulling their fingernails out wasn’t even the worst part.”
Walid Ahmed Abbas recalled how he and a car full of his relatives accidentally tangled with US forces at an American checkpoint in Baghdad in July, with three of his relatives killed. He was grazed by a bullet and left blind in one eye.
When more than 100 of his kinsmen from the Zaba tribe arrived at the An-Nur Hospital, the police decided they must be insurgents since their relatives had been shot by American troops. They arrested them, and locked most of them up in a container. Under the intense desert sun, 10 died.
“The Interior Minister said it was a mistake, that generally our police officers are well behaved, but we know otherwise. This all happened only because we’re Zaba and Sunni,” said Abbas.
But the most arresting interview was with a man who wanted only to identified as Abu Adhar. He was carried to the interview by four relatives. Injuries covered his face, back, and legs.
He was abducted and thrown into the back of a car while investigating charges of abuse by the Interior Ministry for a Sunni mosque where he leads prayers. After driving through at least five Iraqi police checkpoints, they arrived at a house. He said he was tortured for two days with electric shocks and whips. “Then their commander said they were done, and to take me out and kill me.”
Driving to a field where he expected to be shot, he managed to free his hands and escape when the car slowed. A farmer took him in and contacted his family.
“What’s really distressing is that we promised this would stop,” says Whitson of Human Rights Watch. “What’s different? What’s changed? The Iraqi people were promised something better.”