After a US raid on a secret Iraqi government jail last month revealed some detainees were tortured and abused there, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr insisted abuse claims were exaggerated and that torture will not be tolerated in the new Iraq.
US soldiers and some Iraqi officials disagree. They say not only is prisoner abuse widespread, but that much of it is carried out by Mr. Jabr's subordinates. Efforts to bring the problem under control during the past year have largely been frustrated by indifference from senior Iraqi officials, they say.
Privately, half a dozen US officers have acknowledged to the Monitor that prisoner abuse by Iraqi police is common.
Now, one officer is speaking out. Major R. John Stukey, a US Army doctor who served in Baghdad from January to June, frequently visited Interior Ministry facilities on the east side of Baghdad to assess the health of prisoners. He says he personally treated about a dozen men who had been tortured and observed an environment of overcrowding and neglect.
Many more of his patients alleged torture, but in most cases this couldn't be verified, since he often saw them for the first time months after their initial arrests and interrogations.
In one east Baghdad facility run by Iraq's Interior Ministry, a few miles from the secret jail that was raided by US forces on Nov. 13, Major Stukey says about 220 men were held in filthy conditions in a space so crowded that many couldn't lie down to sleep.
Stukey visited the facilities with members of the 720th US Military Police Battalion. The MPs filed frequent reports to their commanders about the ill-treatment and, Stukey says, did what they could to prevent torture and improve the prisoners' conditions. They made a point of distributing soap, toothbrushes, and Korans whenever they visited.
"We did report what we saw, but it was like trying to put out a forest fire with a bucket of water,'' says Stukey by telephone at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where he is currently based. "The MPs submitted reports at least several times a week on detention issues. We knew about it, and we tried to change it, but it was just one of those things you had to deal with."
Officials from the 720th, now back at its base in Fort Hood, Texas, did not respond to requests for comment.
Coalition troops, fighting a deadly insurgency, say they don't have the manpower to compel better behavior from their Iraqi partners, and that to do so would require them to court frequent conflict with their closest allies inside the country.
The Bush Administration has sent mixed messages on the subject. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that the US "does not authorize or condone torture of detainees." The US has also signed the UN Convention Against Torture. But administration officials have also argued that the treaty rules on "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment do not apply outside US territory.
The tension over the US position was illustrated at a press conference with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace on Nov. 29.
When General Pace said, "it's absolutely the responsibility of every US service member if they see inhumane treatment being conducted to intervene to stop it." Secretary Rumsfeld interjected, "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it."
To this, General Pace replied: "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it."
Since that exchange, Rumsfeld has ordered military commanders to clarify the rules for how US troops should respond if they witness abuse of detainees.
Pat Lang, a retired colonel and former head of Middle East Intelligence for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, says it's important for the US to have a zero-tolerance policy toward torture.
"We know that left to their own devices the Iraqis are going to do these kinds of things, and there's no chance of stopping it all over the country,'' he says. "But to me, this is more about us than it is about them. We can't tolerate this when we see it. I don't want our standards eroded any further. It's bad for the force; so General Pace's policy statement is very important."
Human rights groups say that police abuse in Iraq is by now a well-established pattern: Iraq's police units, many filled with members of Shiite militias that fought against Saddam Hussein, generally have been left without oversight. Since many of these men view Iraq's Sunni Arab population, who were privileged under Mr. Hussein, as their enemies, abuse is reportedly widespread. When he has visited Baghdad's morgues and the offices of Sunni political parties, this reporter has been shown dozens of photographs of men who had been allegedly tortured to death.
Stukey recalls treating one Sunni businessman, about to be released, "who was beaten so badly that his fingernails had fallen off, some pulled off, and I felt ashamed to be associated with it."
Stukey says the MPs encountered frequent problems at the Iraqi police Major Crimes Unit in Adhamiya, a Sunni neighborhood where support for the insurgency is high. On two occasions, MPs of the 720th intervened to stop abuse of prisoners that was under way when they were in the building. In one case on May 3, a prisoner was "being severely tortured, the MPs could hear the screams,'' says Stukey. They took custody of the man and the equipment he was being tortured with.
"My understanding was that what trickled back down the US chain of command was that [the MPs] did the right thing. They weren't dissuaded in any way from doing this again,'' he says. "But the guidance that trickled down was that these are Iraqis in control of their own facilities, we've given them control, and we're not going to take back those facilities. How can a [US sergeant] take over a government facility from an Iraqi officer?"
In April, he says the 720th MPs also discovered an "off the books" detention facility in the Adhamiya neighborhood where torture was taking place, and that the Iraqi police general in charge of the area was fired as a consequence.
Stukey says from his admittedly narrow view of Baghdad, and from discussions with soldiers in other areas of Iraq, that abuse of detainees is standard operating procedure for the Iraqi police. Many senior Iraqi politicians agree with him.
Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister and close US ally, told The Observer, a British newspaper, last month that "people are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse." The British are currently investigating allegations that the Iraqi police tortured two men to death with electric drills in the southern city of Basra. In Baghdad, this reporter met with four survivors of police custody who bore injuries consistent with their alleged torture with electric shocks and other implements.
To date, no Iraqi police officers have been arrested or charged in connection with the torture discovered by US troops at the jail in November. Jabr, a former member of the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-trained militia, told reporters he had personally ordered that the men be held at the secret facility. He promised swift action when the abuse was uncovered. Last week, Nouri al-Nouri, the ministry's inspector for human rights was fired. The Interior Ministry press office, the office of Jabr, and the office of the prime minister did not return calls seeking comment.
Iraq's prime minister had promised a full report into abuse of detainees in Iraq by Dec. 1, but the government says the joint US-Iraq investigation is still ongoing.