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Iraq not ready to run jails, U.S. says

Jason Strazluso Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military will not hand over jails or individual detainees to Iraqi authorities until they demonstrate higher standards of care, an American official said Sunday, two weeks after the discovery of 120 abused Iraqi prisoners.

Meanwhile, bloodshed claimed at least 18 lives across Iraq, including two U.S. and five Iraqi soldiers killed by bombings in Baghdad.

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said detention facilities in Iraq will be transferred over time to Iraqi officials but they must first show that the rights of detainees are safeguarded and that international law on the treatment of prisoners is being followed.

“A specific timeline for doing this is difficult to project at this stage with so many variables,” said Johnson, a military spokesman. “The Iraqis are committed to doing this right and will not rush to failure. The transition will be based on meeting standards, not on a timeline.”

He was commenting on a New York Times story Sunday that was the first to report prison facilities wouldn’t be handed over until Iraqi officials improved standards.

Prisons have been one of the sore points between the Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni Arabs, a long-dominant minority that saw its power evaporate with Saddam Hussein’s ouster. U.S. officials are pushing to heal the rift as a way to weaken support for the Sunni-led insurgency.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said earlier this month that at least 120 abused prisoners had been found inside two jails controlled by the Shiite-run Iraqi Interior Ministry.

Sunni Arabs long have complained about abuse and torture by Interior Ministry security forces. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr contends torture allegations have been exaggerated by people who sympathize with insurgents.

Johnson said that in preparation for the eventual handover of prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice is training Iraqi prison guards. About 300 have completed the course, he said.

American authorities suffered their own black eye over mistreatment of prisoners when photographs surfaced early last year showing U.S. soldiers abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison on Baghdad’s western outskirts. The scandal led to convictions for nine Army reservists.

In ongoing violence, the U.S. command reported that two American soldiers were killed by bombs Sunday. No other details were immediately released, and it was not clear if they died in the same incident.

A suicide car bomber slammed into two Iraqi army vehicles in central Baghdad, killing five soldiers and wounding seven police and civilians, police Maj. Mohammed Younis said. A second suicide car bomb targeting Iraqi police wounded four officers.

Bombings and gun attacks killed at least 11 more people elsewhere in the capital, Kirkuk, Mosul and Jbala, authorities said.

In Baghdad’s Shiite slum of Sadr City, about 1,000 demonstrators rallied to support the governing Shiite religious coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, which took a large lead in preliminary results from the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

Those results have been attacked by Sunni Arab and secular Shiite parties, which charge the election was tainted by fraud and other irregularities.

The Alliance, headed by cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, denies there was any fraud and is urging Iraqis to accept the results as it tries to form a “national unity” government drawing people from all communities.

Sunni Arabs staged smaller demonstrations in Fallujah and Baqouba to support demands from Sunni and secular Shiite parties for a rerun of the election.

In Fallujah, a former insurgent stronghold in western Anbar province, local government offices closed to support the protest.

“We decided to have a sit-in today and stop work in government offices to convey our demands for a rerun of elections,” said Fallujah’s mayor, Dhari al-Arsan.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a member of the Kurdish minority, sought to calm tensions by saying Sunday that all factions will have a role in the new government.

“The government will not be formed without the Sunni Arabs,” Talabani told reporters in the northern resort town of Dukan, where he met with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and the U.S. ambassador to discuss the political situation.

Talabani said there must be a “consensus government that preserves national unity,” and that the rights of the Kurdish people must be guaranteed.

All of the election complaints demonstrate the difficulty that Iraqi parties will face in forming a government after final election results are released in early January.

About 1,500 complaints have been lodged about the elections, including at least 35 that the Iraqi election commission said could be serious enough to change the results in certain areas.

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