Last Nov. 13, U.S. soldiers found 173 incarcerated men, some of them emaciated and showing signs of torture, in a secret bunker in an Interior Ministry compound in central Baghdad. The soldiers immediately transferred the men to a separate detention facility to protect them from further abuse, the U.S. military reported.
Since then, there have been at least six joint U.S.-Iraqi inspections of detention centers, most of them run by Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated Interior Ministry. Two sources involved with the inspections, one Iraqi official and one U.S. official, said abuse of prisoners was found at all the sites visited through February. U.S. military authorities confirmed that signs of severe abuse were observed at two of the detention centers.
But U.S. troops have not responded by removing all the detainees, as they did in November. Instead, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials, only a handful of the most severely abused detainees at a single site were removed for medical treatment. Prisoners at two other sites were removed to alleviate overcrowding. U.S. and Iraqi authorities left the rest where they were.
This practice of leaving the detainees in place has raised concerns that detainees now face additional threats. It has also prompted fresh questions from the inspectors about whether the United States has honored a pledge by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that U.S. troops would attempt to stop inhumane treatment if they saw it.
Pace said at a news conference Nov. 29 with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, "It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene to stop it." Turning to Pace, Rumsfeld responded: "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it."
"If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it," Pace answered.
The Iraqi official familiar with the joint inspections said detainees who are not moved to other facilities are left vulnerable. "They tell us, 'If you leave us here, they will kill us,' " said the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because, he said, he and other Iraqis involved with inspections had received death threats.
The U.S. official involved in the inspections, who would not be identified by name, described in an e-mail the abuse found during some of the visits since the Nov. 13 raid: "Numerous bruises on the arms, legs and feet. A lot of the Iraqis had separated shoulders and problems with their hands and fingers too. You could also see strap marks on some of their backs."
"I was not in charge of the team who went to the sites. If so, I would have taken them out," the U.S. official wrote, referring to the detainees. "We set a precedent and we were given guidance" from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "but for some reason it is not being followed."
Maj. Gen. John D. Gardner, the commander of U.S. detention operations in Iraq, said in an interview, "I would strongly disagree with the statement that Americans are seeing cases of abuse and not doing anything."
U.S. relations with Iraqi government
The issue goes to the heart of U.S. relations with the Iraqi government, which is led by Shiite religious parties. The Interior Ministry, whose forces are overwhelmingly Shiite, has been accused by Sunni Arabs and U.S. officials of operating death squads that target Sunni men. Increasingly, Interior Ministry forces are being accused of other crimes as well, including kidnapping for ransom. The Interior Ministry forces have also been accused of deferring to militias belonging to the Shiite religious parties, from whose ranks many of Iraq's police commandos and other ministry forces are drawn.
The Iraqi government says the cases of abuse, illegal detention and killings by the Shiite death squads are few, and it denies involvement in kidnappings. The U.S. military has said it is devoting 2006 to building up and reforming Iraq's police forces.
After the Nov. 13 disclosures, the highest-ranking U.S. officials in Iraq -- Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. -- issued rare public rebukes to their Iraqi government allies.
At the insistence of U.S. officials, Iraq agreed to the joint inspections of what the United States said would be all of Iraq's more than 1,000 detention centers.
The two sources involved in the joint inspections said the visits after November included an Interior Ministry detention center in Baghdad, which was inspected twice; a Defense Ministry site near the Green Zone; an Interior Ministry site in the city of Kut; an Interior Ministry site in the Muthanna neighborhood of Baghdad; and a "maximum crimes facility" in Baghdad.
The two sources said that at three of those sites, prisoners were being held by the Wolf Brigade, one of the Interior Ministry commando forces most feared by Sunnis.
After the Nov. 13 raid, Iraqi-U.S. teams inspected Interior Ministry sites on Dec. 8, Dec. 20, Dec. 28, Jan. 19, Feb. 16 and March 22, according to Lt. Col. Kevin Curry, spokesman for U.S. detention operations.
‘Required immediate medical care’
Curry added in a statement, "At one of the sites, thirteen detainees showed signs of abuse that required immediate medical care. The signs of abuse included broken bones, indications that they had been beaten with hoses and wires, signs that they had been hung from the ceiling, and cigarette burns. These individuals were transferred to a nearby Iraqi detention facility and provided medical care. Most of the abuse appeared to have occurred prior to arriving at that site.
"There were several cases of physical abuse at one other inspection site. These included evidence of scars, missing toenails, dislocated shoulders, severe bruising, and cigarette burns. At the time of the inspection, most of the apparent injuries were months old; however, there were indications that three cases of abuse occurred within a week of the inspection. No detainee required immediate hospitalization for injuries at that site," Curry said.
"If a soldier at any level sees abuse of an Iraqi somewhere or hears of it . . . we certainly take it seriously and pursue it," Gardner said. "We take it extremely seriously, and part of the goal is to develop a detention process that's free of abuse."
Curry's statement confirmed abuse depicted in accounts and photographs given earlier to The Washington Post by the U.S. and Iraqi officials involved in the inspections, including the dislocated shoulders that the officials said were caused by hanging detainees from ceilings.
"I don't want to downplay the level of abuse," Gardner said of the cases found during inspections. "In some of them, there were a couple where it was pretty severe."
"Two facilities had clear signs of abuse, although we found some signs of prior abuse in select detainees at each of the six inspections," Gardner said in a statement. "Cases where the abuse appeared to have been committed within the last 3-4 days the detainees were evacuated for medical attention. We do not leave the facility until we are assured that the detainees are safe from physical abuse at that site."
"During all six inspections other deficiencies were noted and provided for corrective action," Gardner said in the statement. "We feel these actions are consistent with the comments Gen. Pace made earlier in the year."
U.S. efforts to eliminate torture in Iraq's prisons and detention centers include training Iraqi corrections officers, increasing capacity at detention centers and training Iraqi security forces on the rights and care of detainees, Gardner said.
The Iraqi official involved in the inspections said he saw abused detainees at all the sites visited. At a sandbagged checkpoint in Baghdad's Green Zone, the official pulled from his pocket a press clipping quoting Pace's remarks of Nov. 29, unfolded it and read it aloud.
"I want them to do what General Pace said," the Iraqi official said. Interior Ministry forces and allied Shiite militias have become more adept at hiding detainees and they kidnap victims from inspectors, he said. Iraqis "are looking for some of the Americans to do the right thing," he added. "Don't be intimidated by the Iraqi politicians."
According to the Iraqi official, the Americans initially said they would suspend their policy of removing prisoners from sites where abuse was found until after Iraq's national elections, which were held Dec. 15, because disclosures of Interior Ministry abuses were politically sensitive. The elections came and went, the official said, and the Americans continued leaving detainees at sites that held bruised, burned and limping prisoners.
Iraqi Justice Minister Abdul Hussein Shandal, however, said the Americans "don't have the right" to transfer detainees from detention centers operated by Iraqi ministries. The Nov. 13 raid "was the last incident in which the U.S. asked for such a transfer," he said.
‘We take this very seriously’
While the interviews with top U.S. and Iraqi officials confirmed the continuing findings of torture victims at Iraqi detention centers, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the main U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, broadly denied in remarks to U.S. reporters in Baghdad that any abuse had been found at any of the centers since the initial raid on Nov. 13.
"In these facilities that we did inspect unannounced, we saw no signs of abuse," Lynch told reporters at a briefing March 30. "The facilities were, by our standards, overcrowded, but the people being held at those facilities were being properly taken care of; they were being fed, they had water, they were taken care of. So no abuse, no evidence of torture in those facilities."
Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, said in an interview that when Americans find abuse, "we document it, we investigate, we do a report, and we ultimately pass that report to the government."
After abuse was found at one Interior Ministry site, "that very day I went and talked to the government," Khalilzad said. "We take this very seriously."
Khalilzad's calls to rein in Shiite security forces and militias have put him on increasingly prickly terms with some members of Iraq's governing coalition of Shiite religious parties. Khalilzad has repeatedly urged that Interior Ministry forces be brought under the control of a nonsectarian minister.