BAGHDAD — A top Interior Ministry official said yesterday that the 173 malnourished prisoners found by U.S. forces included members of all Iraqi sects, playing down accusations of a campaign by Shi’ite-led security forces to suppress Sunni Arabs ahead of next month’s elections.
The Shi’ite-led government sought to dampen Sunni outrage over revelations Tuesday by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari that the detainees, some showing signs of torture, were found last weekend by U.S. troops at an Interior Ministry lockup in the capital. Most were thought to be Sunni Arabs, the leading group in the insurgency.
Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, deputy interior minister, said the detainees also included Shi’ites, Kurds and Turkmen. He gave no breakdown.
Speaking on a day in which five U.S. troops died in fighting in western Iraq, President Jalal Talabani said there was “no place for torture and persecution in the new Iraq” and that anyone involved “would be severely punished.”
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told The Washington Times that an inspection of the facility by U.S. forces on Sunday “appears to have turned up practices that are completely contrary to Iraq government policy. … We agree with Iraqi leaders that the mistreatment of detainees is a serious matter and unacceptable.”
Government spokesman Laith Kubba defended the Interior Ministry, saying all the detainees were arrested legally and most were referred to courts for prosecution. They were kept at the detention center in the Jadriyah district because of a lack of jail space, he said.
“The Interior Ministry is doing its job at a difficult time, and some mistakes happen,” he said.
A police official in Baghdad told The Times on Tuesday that some of the detainees had been tortured with electrical shocks and power drills and some had appeared to be near death.
The official, who urged that his name not be revealed, also said the prison was under the control of the Badr Brigades, a militia affiliated with one of the main Shi’ite religious parties that has many members within the Interior Ministry forces.
Manfred Nowak, a special U.N. investigator on torture, said it was “no secret” that torture is still practiced in Iraq. “It is shocking, but on the other hand, we have received allegations of these secret [detention] places in Iraq already for quite a long time.”
Sunni leader Adnan al-Dulaimi said other torture centers are operating and that he had complained to the government about abuses at three Interior Ministry compounds.
He and several other Sunni politicians demanded an international inquiry. Some said Shi’ite-led security forces were trying to intimidate Sunnis from voting in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
Other Sunnis saw the hand of Shi’ite-dominated Iran, which offered sanctuary to Iraqi Shi’ites during Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.
“Some government officials want to keep the Sunnis away from the next elections by terrorizing us,” said Saad Farhan, a Sunni merchant in Ramadi who added that his brother and cousin had been held in Jadriyah.
Five U.S. Marines were killed, meanwhile, in fighting with al Qaeda-led insurgents near the Syrian border, and an Army soldier died of wounds suffered in Baghdad, making yesterday the second deadliest day for American forces in Iraq this month.
A Marine statement confirmed that U.S. and Iraqi forces were meeting “strong resistance” in Obeidi — the third town attacked during the Operation Steel Curtain offensive — because insurgents there “believe they are trapped and have nowhere else to go.”
U.S. officials say the offensive near the Syrian border is aimed in part at enabling Sunni Arabs to vote in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections without fear of reprisals. The Bush administration hopes successful elections will encourage many in the Sunni community to abandon the insurgency.
Staff writers Guy Taylor and Sharon Behn in Washington contributed to this report.