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Iraq: Torture Allegations Hang Over Government

  • Sumedha Senanayake

Can Sunnis trust Iraq's security forces? (file photo) (epa) December 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On December 25, a thousand British troops accompanied by Iraqi forces raided the Al-Jama'at police station in Al-Basrah after being told that dozens of detainees were about to be put to death.

At the police station, the troops found 127 prisoners being held in conditions that U.K. military spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge described as "appalling." He said all the men were crammed inside a single 9-by-12-meter cell with two open toilets and a few blankets spread over a concrete floor. Many of them also showed signs of abuse and torture, such as crushed hands and feet, cigarette burns, and gunshot wounds to their knees.

The Al-Jama'at raid was only the latest incident in which allegations of torture have been leveled against Iraqi security forces. It is a common scenario: the systematic torture of detainees by a rogue Iraqi security force suspected of being infiltrated by Shi'ite militiamen.

While these continuing revelations could erode support for an already weakened Shi'ite-led government, they may also encourage influential Sunni groups like the Muslim Scholars Association to continue their boycott of the political process.

Abuses Go Beyond Sectarian Violence

The Al-Basrah raid was aimed at a renegade police force referred to as the Serious Crimes Unit, which British officials claimed had been infiltrated by Shi'ite militia elements, who used the unit to carry out sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs and settle scores with political rivals, London's "The Times" reported on December 26. The incident recalled the dismissal on November 7 of some 57 members of a police unit charged with torturing hundreds of detainees at an infamous Baghdad prison called "Site No. 4."
"Some prisoners have been threatened that members of their families
could be raped if they did not confess and sign certain documents."


While many instances of prisoner abuse fall along sectarian lines, with Shi'ite militia members using the cover of security forces to target Sunnis, other instances of prisoner abuse have also surfaced. In the semi-autonomous Kurdish north, which has been spared much of the sectarian violence, Kurdish security forces have been accused of randomly arresting members of rival political parties and torturing them.

The leader of the Kurdistan Islamic Group, Ali Bapir, on December 14 accused forces linked to the two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, of arresting and torturing a number of his group's members without charges, the Kurdish daily "Aso" reported the same day.

"Some statements have been squeezed out of prisoners under interrogation and torture, and later they were indicted," Bapir said. "There are people serving three or four years in prison without any charges. Some prisoners have been threatened that members of their families could be raped if they did not confess and sign certain documents."

Are Iraqi women being raped in prsion (epa file photo)

Also, a December 13 report by the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks found conflicting accounts concerning the treatment of female prisoners in Iraqi detention centers. The Interior Ministry declared that there are very few, if any female prisoners, but those that are detained are held in special facilities and treated with respect. The U.S. military contends that it has no information regarding women detainees being held in Iraqi prisons.

But according to Women's Affairs Minister Fatin Abd al-Rahman Mahmud, female prisoners are being held in "appalling conditions, often without charge, and are sometimes raped and tortured."

She added: "We don't know the exact number of female prisoners, but there are many being held in different prisons -- even though the [other ministries in the] government and U.S. forces deny it. They are afraid of a counterattack from the country's conservative society."

Allegations Undermine Government, Security

The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken significant steps to combat corruption and weed out militia elements from the Interior Ministry and its associated security forces. On October 17, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani reassigned three top police commanders suspected of having links to Shi'ite death squads. And on October 4, the government suspended an entire brigade from the national police and ordered them to undergo re-retraining and revetting after allegations surfaced that some of them were linked to Shi'ite death squads.

Despite these efforts, continuing allegations of prisoner abuse at Iraqi-run detention facilities hang like a cloud over the Iraqi government. These charges recall the similar brutality displayed during the regime of former President Saddam Hussein, which undercuts the government's legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people.

Moreover, suspected "rogue" elements such as the unit at the police station in Al-Basrah underscore the impression that the government is unable to control these forces, heightening the fear among Sunnis, who may feel obliged to take up arms to protect themselves. This increases the likelihood of a serious armed conflict and continuing instability.

Fuel For Propaganda

What's more, revelations that Shi'ite militiamen under the cover of the Iraqi security services have participated in the torture of Sunni prisoners may dissuade members of the Sunni-led insurgency from laying down their arms and joining the political process. This would deal a severe blow to any efforts by the Iraqi government to initiate a national reconciliation plan.

While abuse allegations undermine the government, they also give legitimacy to the armed insurgency and terrorist groups. Accusations of torture are an effective means of mobilizing fearful and disillusioned Iraqis who have lost faith in the government, and serve as an effective recruiting tool.

On November 20, the "Mujahedin News" website posted links to a 57-minute video clip attributed to Al-Furqan Media Productions titled "Free the Prisoners." The video calls on Muslims to do their part to free Sunni prisoners in U.S.-run and Iraqi government prisons, and includes footage from Al-Jazeera television showing Sunnis displaying scars, allegedly the product of torture in government-run detention facilities.
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The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)


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