BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Tuesday that prisoners at a makeshift prison established by Interior Ministry employees appeared malnourished and in some cases tortured. He declared that his government would work to root out such practices by the new police.
It was the first time that the country’s U.S.-backed government installed in April had acknowledged the apparent abuse of prisoners at one of its facilities. A senior official of the Interior Ministry pledged to fix the problems and to fire or punish offending officers.
Sunni Arabs have long complained that Shiite Muslim militias close to the political parties that dominate Iraq’s ruling coalition are carrying out a shadowy campaign of vendettas against perceived political and sectarian foes. The discovery Sunday of the makeshift prison, with at least 170 prisoners held in murky circumstances, lent credibility to those charges.
Soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and Iraqi troops found the prisoners when, acting on a tip and searching for a missing teenager, they demanded to enter the bunker-like building hidden away in a quiet, well-to-do neighborhood near Baghdad University.
Journalists have not been given access to the prisoners, who have since been moved to another, more suitable location, according to the government.
But a senior U.S. military officer told the Los Angeles Times, without providing details, that some prisoners had injuries that appeared consistent with abuse. The injuries were significant enough that medical care was summoned to the site. Al-Jaafari said Tuesday there were apparent “torture marks” on some detainees.
Facing parliamentary election next month, al-Jaafari’s Shiite-led government appeared to want to move quickly to mitigate the impact of the reported abuse and address the question of whether other such sites exist.
The U.S. Embassy and multinational forces congratulated al-Jaafari for his quick promise to investigate. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the two ranking U.S. officials in Iraq, have discussed the issue with Iraq’s leaders “at the highest level,” a joint statement said.
The statement called the mistreatment of detainees “totally unacceptable” and said that the U.S. government, including officials from the FBI and Department of Justice, would give technical help “to investigate, prosecute and bring to justice” anyone responsible.
Amnesty International, responding to the report, said it welcomed the government’s investigation and asked that it be expanded to include all allegations of torture in Iraq.
Standing outside the facility in the Jadiriya neighborhood Tuesday night, Interior Ministry official Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal blamed the prisoner abuse on inexperienced and untrained officers who were brought into the police force during the chaotic days following the ouster of former President Saddam Hussein.
The low-slung building, which appeared from the outside to have been constructed as a bomb shelter during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, covers about an acre of southern Baghdad. It is hidden from the main road behind houses and apartment buildings and surrounded by garbage-strewn earthen berms.
“We have pictures and evidence of the prisoners that were harmed, and every Iraqi citizen has the right to punish those who mistreated those prisoners,” the Interior Ministry general said. “Those cases have been handed over to the Iraqi court to decide.”
Kamal, who is the ministry’s undersecretary for security, said that prisoners should never have been taken to such a facility.
“This place is not suitable for holding people. It was a shelter,” he said. There were no cells, and people were held in ordinary rooms, he said.