Iraq's new security forces are routinely abusing and torturing detainees in ways reminiscent of those used by the notoriously brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, according to Iraqi government officials, human-rights groups and victims of the abuse.
The prison scandal broke as Iraqi and U.S. forces clashed with insurgents in the border town of Obeidi along the Euphrates River. Three Marines were killed over the last two days in an operation to weed out foreign fighters who are filtering through the Syrian border.
Three U.S. soldiers were killed Tuesday by roadside explosions in Baghdad. That brought to at least 2,071 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The discovery by U.S. forces earlier this week of an Interior Ministry bunker crammed with at least 161 malnourished detainees bearing signs of torture has illustrated the scale of the problem, which threatens to undermine the new democracy the United States is trying to build in Iraq.
On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari ordered an inquiry into the circumstances of the detainees, who were held in the mostly Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriyah.
Some of them had been paralyzed by the beatings they had received, and in some cases their skin was peeling off, according to Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal.
"This sort of behavior completely undermines everything the Iraqi government stands for and everything the coalition came here for," said Lt. Col. Frederick Wellman, a spokesman for the division of the multinational force in Iraq that is responsible for training Iraq's police.
U.S. soldiers who were searching for a 15-year-old boy in the jail discovered the apparently abused detainees instead. The underfed men had bruises and scratches all over their bodies, said Kurdish Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the deputy minister of the interior.
The military had gotten a complaint from the 15-year-old's parents and had cleared the search with the ministry, according to Kamal.
Allegations of torture have long swirled around Iraq's Interior Ministry forces, but the government has explained the charges as either isolated cases or as the work of insurgents, who have been accused of disguising themselves as police to detain and torture Sunnis in hopes of inflaming sectarian tensions.
Most of those being detained by government forces on suspicion of ties to the insurgency are Sunnis, and the Interior Ministry is run by Shiites loyal to the political parties now leading the democratically elected government.
But the discovery of the detainees in the bunker and the testimonies of victims suggest the abuse may be widespread and deeply rooted in the police forces.
A 43-year-old restaurant owner who asked not to be named because he fears retaliation recounted his six months in detention at two Interior Ministry facilities — the commando headquarters housed in a former Republican Guard palace and the main ministry building. He produced court documents and other papers confirming his time in government custody and showed scars on his legs that he said were caused by electric shocks.
During that time, he said, interrogators administered electric shocks all over his body, including his genitals. They set fire to plastic bags and dripped the molten plastic on his flesh, he said, and stuck needles into his testicles. Mostly, he was given what interrogators called the "flying fish" treatment, during which he was chained to a ceiling fan with his hands stretched behind his back while his interrogators beat him into confessing to crimes he said he didn't commit.
During a one-month period, three of his 80 cellmates died from the torture they received, he said. A nail was hammered into one man's kneecap, he recalled.
Under interrogation, the man said, he confessed to shooting 150 Shiite pilgrims at a Baghdad shrine one night. Then his interrogator challenged him: "How do you know it was 150? It was dark!" No such incident ever occurred."It was so bad I don't know what I confessed to," he said.
After three months, unable to walk and barely conscious, he was carried in a blanket and dumped on the floor in front of a judge, who ordered him hospitalized. Instead, his jailers took him back to the ministry and left him there three more months until he could walk and his scars had healed.
In October, he appeared in court, and the judge ordered him released for lack of evidence, the man said. Instead of freeing him, his jailers took him back to the Interior Ministry and contacted his family to demand $30,000 for his release. The family paid up, said the man, who now lives in hiding, afraid to go home in case he is detained again.
Stories such as these coincide with a flurry of discoveries of torture victims over the past six months, most of them dumped on garbage heaps around Baghdad after reportedly being detained by men wearing police uniforms.
Baghdad morgue director Faeq Bakr said there has been a marked increase in the number of corpses turning up at his facility bearing signs of systematic torture, including the drilling of kneecaps and skulls and the use of acid on flesh, methods that were common under the former regime, reports Seattle Times. I.L.