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Iraqi torture practices could be more widespread

Revelations this week that Iraq's Interior Ministry abused detainees in a secret prison may be just the beginning.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2005


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.

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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.