An Iraqi government search of a detention center in Baghdad operated by Interior Ministry special commandos found 13 prisoners who had suffered abuse serious enough to require medical treatment, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Sunday night.
An Iraqi official with firsthand knowledge of the search said that at least 12 of the 13 prisoners had been subjected to "severe torture," including sessions of electric shock and episodes that left them with broken bones.
"Two of them showed me their nails, and they were gone," the official said on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
A government spokesman, Laith Kubba, said Sunday night that any findings at the prison would be "subject to an investigation," but he declined to comment on the allegations.
The site, which was searched Thursday, is the second Interior Ministry detention center where cases of prisoner abuse have been confirmed by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
U.S. troops found the first site last month when they entered an Interior Ministry building in central Baghdad to look for a Sunni Arab teenager they believed had been detained, officers said at the time. Several prisoners at that site appeared to have suffered beatings, and many were emaciated, U.S. and Iraqi officials and witnesses said.
International law, including the U.N. Convention against Torture, bans torture in all cases. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad issued a sharp public rebuke of the Iraqi government after the secret prison was discovered last month, demanding in a statement that all detainees nationwide be treated in accord with human rights.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, under heavy pressure from Khalilzad and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, ordered a nationwide investigation of detention centers after that discovery. The prison investigated Thursday was the first center examined as part of the government-ordered inquiry.
Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a spokesman for U.S. military detention issues, said American authorities had already been aware that the prison searched Thursday existed. U.S. forces had not known about the previous facility.
Prison inspectors from the Ministry of Human Rights and representatives of other ministries participated in the commando prison search, the ministry said in a statement. Authorities did not say whether any Americans were involved in the inquiry.
Investigators said they found 625 prisoners at the center but declined to give details about them. Most of the detainees found at the secret prison last month were Sunni Arabs who had been picked up by forces of the Shiite Muslim-dominated Interior Ministry.
"The team discovered a number of problems, which the ministries of Interior and Human Rights are working together to correct," the statement said. "The facility was overcrowded: As a result, the Ministry of Justice has agreed to receive 75 detainees from this facility at Rusafa Prison; Iraqi judges released 56 detainees directly following the inspection. . . . Thirteen of the detainees were removed from the detention facility to receive medical treatment.''
Rudisill said the 56 freed prisoners were released on the recommendation of Iraqi judges who took part in the inspection. "They quickly looked through and found in these cases specifically there were no reasons to hold these individuals," he said.
U.S. diplomatic and military officials said Iraqi officials were leading the investigation and declined to offer further comment.
Torture was routine in Iraqi prisons under former president Saddam Hussein. U.S. forces in Iraq drew international criticism for abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in which military guards photographed themselves humiliating naked Iraqi detainees. The Iraqi government, led by Shiite parties with strong ties to Iran, has strongly rejected allegations of Iranian intelligence involvement in Interior Ministry prisons.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry has a significant number of former militia members and members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party that is the largest in the government.
Alleged death squads
The country's Sunni minority has accused the Interior Ministry of taking a leading role in severe abuses, including the targeting of Sunnis by alleged death squads. Since the current government took office in late April, the bodies of scores of Sunni men have been found dumped on roadsides, in dry riverbeds and in fields. Most of the men were found handcuffed and shot. In several cases, family members have said the men were taken away by people in Interior Ministry uniforms and vehicles.
The government has repeatedly said it was investigating the allegations. No results of any investigations have been announced.
"The investigation was extended," Jafari, a member of another Shiite religious party in the governing coalition, told the Reuters news agency on Sunday. "It is not finished. We are investigating all violations. We do not accept any violations committed against any Iraqis."
Last week, the Interior Ministry fired its top human rights official, Nouri Nouri, without providing an explanation.
Sunni political leaders charge that similar incidents of torture are occurring at other Interior Ministry detention facilities and have identified some of the sites by name.
Shiite political leaders say the U.S. military frequently visits the facilities and suggest that American authorities would know about any abuse.
Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered military commanders to come up with clear rules for how U.S. forces should respond if they witness detainee abuse. The order followed an exchange between Rumsfeld and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, at a news conference Nov. 29.
Pace said then that it was "absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member if they see inhumane treatment being conducted to intervene to stop it."
Rumsfeld said, "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it."
Pace responded, "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it."
U.S. officials have said the FBI and the U.S. military are aiding the prison investigation. Authorities have identified more than 1,000 detention centers across Iraq.