Wednesday, November 16, 2005

U.S. and Iraqi forces raided a secret Iraqi detention bunker run by the Ministry of Interior in central Baghdad and freed 173 Sunni prisoners who had been tortured with electric shocks and drills, Iraqi and U.S. officials said yesterday.

The Ministry of Interior in the Shi’ite-led government has been repeatedly accused of allowing extrajudicial detentions and abuses, including operation of anti-Sunni hit squads.

A Baghdad police official said officers from the Shi’ite-led Badr Brigade, which answers to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) political party, were manning the bunker when the U.S. and Iraqi forces arrived.

“The army searched the bunker and found many prisoners there,” said the police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They found prisoners who had been treated inhumanely, tortured with warm water, electricity and drills in their bodies.”

He said all the detainees were Sunnis, and police braced for an outburst of anger when news of the discovery is widely circulated today.

The brutal insurgency in Iraq is blamed largely on Sunni former regime elements. Sunni leaders have accused Shi’ite officials of sectarian arrests in the name of quashing the violence.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the coalition forces had “found things that concerned them,” but did not go into any details. U.S. troops took control of the building in Baghdad’s central Jadriyah district on Sunday.

In eastern Baghdad yesterday, a car bomb exploded near a restaurant and killed four persons, including two police officers. Seven persons were wounded, including two children selling vegetables.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told reporters in Baghdad that the discovery of the prisoners was under investigation. He said the prisoners had been moved to another location and were receiving medical care.

“I was informed that there were 173 detained held at an Interior Ministry prison, and they appear to be malnourished. There is also some talk that they were subjected to some kind of torture.”

The police official, who was present when a senior U.S. officer was describing conditions in the prison, said the Americans reported “terrible things” that had happened in the building.

“It smelled very bad in the bunker and all over the area,” he said, adding he had heard that many of the detainees were near death when they were discovered.

The police official said he thought there were other such detention centers in the city, including in the former stables of a police academy not far from the Oil Ministry. He said Iraqi and British officials had taken photographs of the detainees and the basement in which they were found.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli called for those responsible to be held accountable.

“We don’t practice torture, and we don’t believe that others should practice torture,” he said. “So when there are cases of people being accused of torture, we take that seriously.”

Amnesty International has expressed concern over what Amnesty’s deputy executive director in New York, Curt Goering, describes as the “widespread use of torture by the Iraqi police and the special forces that belong to the Minister of the Interior. The information that we have gathered is that the use of torture by security forces is pretty systematic.” He said it was as gruesome as the methods employed under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

“There have been allegations of electric shocks to the genitals, the use of electric drills on the arms and legs, …hitting with cables and cigarette burns.”

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey have taken up the case with top Iraqi government officials, according to the U.S. Embassy. “We agree with Iraq’s leaders that the mistreatment of detainees is a serious matter and totally unacceptable,” the embassy said.

The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice, together with the U.S. Embassy and multinational forces in Iraq, have offered to assist in the investigation.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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