- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — President Jalal Talabani yesterday denounced new images of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, demanding that his close ally the United States deliver harsh punishment for what he described as “savage crimes.”

Some other Iraqi officials were more restrained, noting that the pictures were three years old and that the perpetrators were being punished.

Human Rights Minister Zuhair al-Chalabi called for all prisoners in coalition prisons to be turned over promptly to the custody of the Iraqi government.

It was doubtful that the prisoners would be better off in an Iraqi prison. The U.S. military said yesterday it had uncovered a death squad operating from the Shi’ite-run Interior Ministry and targeting Sunni Muslims.

The Abu Ghraib photos and videos, broadcast Wednesday by an Australian television station and now widely available on the Internet, threaten to further inflame Muslim anger over satirical depictions of the prophet Muhammad that appeared in European newspapers.

Although similar to the Abu Ghraib photos made public in 2003, several of the new ones are more graphic and include scenes of a blood-streaked floor. One video clip depicts a group of naked men with bags over their heads in sexual positions.

Mr. Talabani, a longtime U.S. ally, criticized the revelations in unusually strong language.

“We have condemned these savage crimes. We reject that a civilized country allow its soldiers to commit these ugly and terrible crimes,” he told reporters. “We demand very harsh punishments against the perpetrators.”

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman pointed out that the perpetrators had been brought to justice.

“There aren’t new allegations; they’re old allegations. These aren’t new photos; they’re old photos. These are photos that were part of the evidence in the prosecutions that took place,” Mr. Whitman said.

“They were the impetus for us to take a look at our detention operations in a very broad and deep fashion. And these abuses that have occurred have been thoroughly investigated.”

A statement released on behalf of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari also noted that those responsible had been punished, even as it said the government “condemns the torture practices revealed through the recent pictures.”

Mr. al-Chalabi told Reuters news agency that the Iraqi government should take custody of about 14,000 prisoners held by coalition forces at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers.

“We are very worried about the Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib. The multinational forces and the British forces should hand them over to the government,” he said. “The Iraqi government should move immediately to have the prisons and the prisoners delivered to the Ministry of Justice.”

New questions about the Iraqi government’s handling of its prisoners were raised, meanwhile, by the announcement that U.S. forces were holding four Iraqi traffic policemen suspected of being part of a death squad.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said the four “were planning to conduct a kidnapping and subsequent murder of a Sunni individual.” He said there was no evidence that the men detained had carried out such operations, though he did not rule it out.

The four were among 22 Iraqi highway patrol members who initially were detained, he said. The Chicago Tribune quoted Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson as saying the plot was discovered when 22 men were stopped at an Iraqi Army checkpoint and admitted that they planned to kill a Sunni Arab.

The incident, if confirmed, adds to a growing body of evidence against Iraq’s Shi’ite-run security forces, which have been the focus of complaints by the Sunni Arab minority for months.

Bodies of Sunni Arabs, often bound and shot in the head, have been turning up in roadside ditches and garbage dumps since early 2005, aggravating sectarian tensions in a country already racked by relentless bloodshed.

U.S. forces last year uncovered a secret bunker at the Interior Ministry that was packed with detainees, most of them Sunni Arabs, the majority of whom showed signs of malnourishment and torture.

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