Bashar al-Dulaimy says he often thinks back to the day he almost died in Iraqi detention.
"They broke my teeth, my nose, and my ribs," he says. An officer overseeing the beating had just ordered that he be taken out and killed when a US patrol pulled up. He says all but one of the Iraqi police scattered."They left because they were afraid of what the Americans would do."
As the US prepares to withdraw from Iraq, serious concerns are surfacing about systematic torture by Iraqi forces in a country where ending human rights abuses was one of the main American goals.
Many Iraqis believe the abuse is part of ongoing political power struggles that could again turn violent.
"All the people feel that politicians here are just waiting for the Americans to leave to take off their masks and show their true faces," says Dulaimy.
The US has spent tens of millions of dollars in Iraq on human rights training, and hundreds of millions of dollars more on instilling the rule of law – training judges, lawyers, and forensic experts and building courthouses.
But as the US forces that provided a deterrent to widespread human rights abuses have pulled back, and in many cases moved out of the picture completely, there remains almost no daily oversight by international observers in a climate rife with corruption and intimidation.
Human rights officials fear the potential for abuse of prisoners will increase as the US military transfers the last of its detention facilities to Iraqi control in the next few months.
Despite US abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, most Iraqis say they would rather take their chances in US detention facilities than Iraqi ones.
"Iraqis have become convinced that the occupying Americans are more merciful than the people of this country," says Abu Huthaifa, a car dealer in Mosul who says he was tortured while jailed last year. His scars are consistent with his story of being suspended from the ceiling and beaten. "[When] people leave the prisons, they leave with hatred toward the government and those leaders who manage to slander the word 'democracy.' "
A secret prison at the Muthanna Iraqi Army base in Baghdad has been particularly troubling to many. Though far from the first such prison brought to light in the post-Saddam era, it may point to a wider problem of facilities operating outside legal safeguards.
More than 400 detainees at Muthanna, including a 68-year-old Iraqi-Briton, were arrested in raids ordered and carried out by units under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's control. At least 40 of them were tortured, says Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"We've been around the country now interviewing detainees from different places, and we've come across cases of mistreatment and abuse – but nothing this routine and systematic," says researcher Samer Muscati of HRW, which detailed abuses from electric shocks to sodomy in an April 27 report based on detainee interviews. "It was quite horrific."
Mr. Maliki, who said he was unaware of the abuse, ordered the facility shut down and called for an investigation. But he publicly ridiculed the prisoners' torture claims as fabrications by his political enemies.
Detention facilities are supposed to be run by the underfunded Ministry of Justice rather than the Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Defense.
The Interior Ministry, which says there's no room in the backed-up system, has more than 1,200 detention facilities, according to the US State Department. The Defense Ministry, which has no legal right to hold civilians, has dozens of detention facilities. It's in those facilities that the worst abuses take place, according to human rights officials.
Human Rights Ministry suspends prison inspections
Iraq's Human Rights Ministry, which had been allowed to send inspectors into the Muthanna facility, has since been forced to suspend its investigations. A spokesman said media interviews were no longer allowed. The human rights directorate at the ministries of defense, interior, and justice either declined interviews or did not respond to repeated queries. With no sitting parliament due to a stalled election process, the human rights committee of parliament is not operating.
Since an HRW report two years ago recommended measures, including more access by detainees to lawyers and to information provided by secret informants, Mr. Muscati says he has seen little progress on human rights.
The State Department's 2009 report on human rights in Iraq, issued last month, describes a wide range of human rights abuses, including "virtual impunity" for government officials tried for murder.
"As in previous years, reports of abuse at the point of arrest and during the investigation period, particularly by the Ministry of Interior's Federal Police and the Ministry of Defense's battalion-level forces, continued to be common," according to the report. It notes more than 500 documented cases of torture and mistreatment in detention facilities.
The report cited corruption, sectarian bias, and lack of civilian oversight and accountability as key obstacles in combating torture.
The US, which last year held more than 20,000 prisoners, is due to transfer the nearly 3,000 remaining to Iraqi custody by fall. Many are convicted insurgents.
"They're already seeing these types of abuses," says Muscati. "And the [detainees] that the Americans are hanging on to tend be the hard core ones that haven't been resolved – in these cases the potential for abuse is higher."
No Red Cross visits
International responsibility for visiting detainees and monitoring prison conditions falls to the International Committee of the Red Cross, but because of security, they do not visit prisons in Diyala and Mosul where torture appears most entrenched.
"Every day there are random detentions, and among hundreds of detainees, there are a few guilty and the vast majority are innocent," says Mr. Huthaifa, the Mosul car dealer. He says dozens of young men imprisoned with him were raped in Iraqi detention – a claim consistent with reports from human rights groups.
"I think here, because there's such a high number of detainees and there's such a lack of funding and overcrowding, there are so many issues on top of each other it creates a really unique environment where all of these issues can fester," says Muscati. "It's the way of doing business in Iraq and unfortunately it's something we've inherited from Saddam Hussein to the Americans in Abu Ghraib to the militias in the south and now the current government – it's the legacy that this country seems to have."
Iraqi activists say the lawlessness that took hold after President Hussein made it possible for anyone to be a jailer. "It was a very strong central government and, whatever you say about it, it [did] prevent a lot of mischief," says Hanna Edward, head of Amal, an Iraqi human rights group. "We're not looking for comparisons, we're looking for change."
But some see human rights as a Western concept that a country at war can't afford. Facing horrific violence against citizens, interrogators in many parts of Iraq seem free to torture prisoners at will to get a confession and a conviction. In the Iraqi legal system, a suspect can be convicted of some crimes only through a confession.
"I think everyone should just calm down," says Gen. Hassan Kareem, head of the Ninevah Operations Command in Mosul, adding that torture reports have been exaggerated. "If I capture a terrorist, I have to keep him for a while to get information."
The U.S. embassy, which has played an increasing role as the US military presence declines, says it regularly raises human rights abuses with Iraqi authorities.
"We continue to engage with them on these things – every one that comes to our attention," says US Ambassador Gary Grappo. "Rule of law and human rights are a core element of our policy here in Iraq."
But among many Iraqi officials, Abu Ghraib and Washington's extraordinary rendition of terror suspects have robbed America of any moral authority on human rights.
"As I recall, the United States has its own secret prisons," says Yassen Almori, head of the Iraqi Red Crescent.
•Mohammed al-Dulaimy contributed to this story.