BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A top Interior Ministry official said yesterday the 173 malnourished prisoners found by U.S. forces included all Iraqi sects, playing down allegations of a campaign by Shiite-led security forces to suppress Sunni Arabs ahead of next month’s election.
The Shiite-led government sought to dampen Sunni outrage over revelations Tuesday by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari that the detainees, some showing signs of torture, were found last weekend by U.S. troops at an Interior Ministry lockup in the capital. Most were believed to be Sunni Arabs, the leading group in the insurgency.
But the deputy interior minister, Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, said the detainees also included Shiites, Kurds and Turkomen. He gave no breakdown.
President Jalal Talabani said there was “no place for torture and persecution in the new Iraq” and that anyone involved “would be severely punished.”
And government spokesman Laith Kubba defended the Interior Ministry, saying all the detainees were legally arrested and most were referred to courts for prosecution. They were kept at the detention center in the Jadriyah district because of a lack of jail space, he said.
“The Interior Ministry is doing its job at a difficult time and some mistakes happen,” he said.
That did little to assuage Sunni Arab anger, with Sunni politicians saying the Jadriyah center was not the only place where detainees are tortured. Sunni leader Adnan al-Dulaimi said he had complained to the government about abuses at three Interior Ministry compounds.
He and several other Sunni politicians demanded an international inquiry. Some alleged that Shiite-led security forces were trying to intimidate Sunnis from voting in the Dec. 15 parliament elections. Many Sunnis saw the hand of Shiite-dominated Iran, which offered sanctuary to many Iraqi Shiites during Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.
“Some government officials want to keep the Sunnis away from the next elections by terrorizing us,” Saad Farhan, a Sunni merchant in Ramadi, said, adding his brother and cousin had been held in Jadriyah. “We believe that Iran’s agents are behind it because normal and genuine Iraqis never do this.”
Raad al-Dulaimi, a farmer near Ramadi, said security services were dominated by “pro-Iranian elements” bent on “settling old sectarian scores with the Sunnis.”
At a Baghdad news conference, Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, held up photos of the bodies of people who appeared to have been tortured and said: “This is what your Sunni brothers are being subjected to.”
The photos were later determined to have been from an incident last summer in which Sunnis died after being locked in an Interior Ministry van in 100-degree-plus heat. The ministry said the ventilation system failed.
The Sunni call for an international investigation drew support from Manfred Nowak, a special U.N. investigator on torture.
“That torture is still practiced in Iraq after Saddam Hussein, that is no secret,” Nowak told The Associated Press. “It is shocking, but on the other hand, we have received allegations of these secret (detention) places in Iraq already for quite a long time.”
Torture allegations illustrate the brutal nature of the Iraq conflict, where insurgents blow up cars among civilians, kidnap and decapitate “collaborators” and settle scores in drive-by shootings on crowded streets.
With Sunnis dominating the insurgency, Shiites and Kurds in the security forces often round up large numbers of Sunnis in hopes of getting a few insurgents. Reprisal kidnappings and killings are common.