Iraqi Rift Grows as Secret Prison Enrages Sunnis

By EDWARD WONG and JOHN F. BURNS

New York Times

November 17, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 17 - As Iraqi investigators began searching through a secret underground prison run by the police in the capital, Sunni Arab leaders furiously denounced the Shiite-led government on Wednesday, saying it supported the torture of Sunni detainees there and calling for an international inquiry.

The discovery of the prison by the American military in a raid on Sunday has galvanized Sunni Arab anger and widened the country's sectarian divide just a month before elections for a full, four-year government.

The American general responsible for securing Baghdad said Wednesday that Sunni Arab leaders were supportive of the operation, which ended Wednesday afternoon. The commander, Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr. of the Third Infantry Division, said that American officers would help scrutinize the evidence seized from the prison, and that his troops were prepared to investigate other complaints of secret detentions by Iraqi security forces.

The American raid forced the prime minister of Iraq, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is a Shiite, to announce Tuesday that the government would investigate accusations of torture at the detention center, where many of the 173 prisoners were found in weakened, malnourished states. A former prisoner said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he and other inmates, mostly Sunni Arabs, were regularly beaten and subjected to electric shocks. He was blindfolded for the entire duration of his stay, more than three months.

The Interior Ministry acknowledged on Tuesday that "instruments of torture" had been found and that torture had occurred.

Today, the interior minister, Bayan Jabr, said at a news conference that seven of the prisoners found in the bunker had been tortured, and that the officers responsible would be punished.

He added that torture was not a policy of the ministry and that his officers were required to meet international standards of human rights.

The bunker was staffed by 29 Iraqi officers in an intelligence unit, he said, and held Iraqi and foreign Arab prisoners.

The prison was in the basement of a bomb shelter built by Saddam Hussein's government and converted into a major operations center for the Interior Ministry after the American invasion. Several Iraqi officials said the policemen working there belonged to a powerful Iranian-trained Shiite militia called the Badr Organization.

For many Sunni Arabs, the uncovering of the prison and the ensuing investigation have lent support to the widespread rumors that Shiite policemen and soldiers have been abducting Sunni Arabs and torturing or killing them. The investigation comes at a politically delicate time. American officials have been urging the former governing Sunni Arabs not to boycott the Dec. 15 elections, as they did during a vote in January, and to take part in the formation of the new government.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, a prominent Sunni political group, issued a statement on Wednesday calling for the United Nations and human rights organizations to "condemn the violations of human rights that the Iraqi government perpetrated" and demanding "an international investigation to punish all those who were involved in these crimes."

The deputy interior minister for intelligence, Hussein Kamal, said the ministry had no policy condoning torture. The government has begun its own investigation, he said, and the prisoners have been moved to another location for "humane care." He added that the prisoners were accused of crimes like terrorism and kidnapping, and that they were arrested with court warrants.

Mr. Kamal said he did not know whether the police in the bunker were members of the Badr Organization, which acts as the military wing of one of the governing Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The headquarters of the Supreme Council is just a half-mile south of the prison, in the Jadriya neighborhood, and the interior minister, Mr. Jabr, is a senior official in the party. Since Mr. Jabr took office last spring, members of the Badr Organization have flooded into the ministry's police and commando units, and Sunni Arabs have regularly accused the ministry of sponsoring death squads.

Falah al-Naqib, Mr. Jabr's predecessor as interior minister and a Sunni Arab, said the bunker was run by a group called the Special Interrogations Unit that answers directly to Mr. Jabr. The unit began using the building as a prison in June, said Mr. Naqib, who lives a block away from the bunker, which is surrounded by seven-foot beige walls laced with concertina wire. Mr. Naqib said that he often saw ambulances entering and leaving the compound, and that prisoners might have been transported in those vehicles.

On Wednesday afternoon, three guards dressed in green camouflage fatigues and brandishing Kalashnikov rifles declined to allow a reporter inside, citing the investigation.

The two-level bunker measures about 11,000 square feet and was used as a headquarters for the Interior Ministry under L. Paul Bremer III, the former American occupation administrator. Mr. Naqib, who became the interior minister after the transfer of sovereignty in June 2004, said he moved the headquarters after a month, but kept an office and bedroom on the first floor, and senior ministry officials continued to work in the building. Mr. Bremer and American generals visited the bunker on several occasions. Mr. Naqib said that the basement was used as warehouse space, and that he did not allow police commando units to run their own prisons. He said the majority of commando officers working in the ministry now were appointed by him, though many others have been dismissed. The number of special units has proliferated. Mr. Naqib said he had hired members of the Badr Organization, but not nearly as many as Mr. Jabr.

Interior Ministry officers under Mr. Naqib were accused of torture and prisoner abuse as well. Human Rights Watch issued a report last January detailing such cases. Mr. Naqib, who is running for the National Assembly, acknowledged that "there were some mistakes made."

Each notable special unit now has its own detention center, Mr. Naqib said. An Interior Ministry official confirmed this, saying there were five official prisons in the Baghdad area and 8 to 10 unofficial jails run by special units. Those centers are generally used to hold people picked up without a legal basis, he said.

The head of the central criminal court, Lukman al-Samarraie, said special units could make arrests without warrants and did not have to file court paperwork. Large-scale arrests by the police began last spring, when the Shiite-run Interior Ministry carried out a sweep of Baghdad to try to curb suicide bombings.

A resident of Falluja, a former guerrilla stronghold, described in a telephone interview on Wednesday how he was taken to the Jadriya bunker after an arrest last June and tortured. He spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his nickname, Abu Jasim, for fear of retribution. He said he had signed papers when he was released on Nov. 11 pledging not to talk about the detention. His account could not be independently verified.

Abu Jasim, 40, said he and two relatives were picked up by Iraqi forces and taken to Baghdad on June 27. They were held for 20 days in one of the unofficial prisons, called Al Nosour. He shared a 215-square-foot room with about 80 detainees. American soldiers walked through the prison after he was locked up and appeared shocked at the conditions.

"I still remember an American officer demanding that fans and cooling units be put in the hallway," Abu Jasim said. "When the Iraqi officer told him, 'O.K., we'll do it tomorrow,' the American officer said angrily, 'No, today.' "

Abu Jasim said he and his two relatives were then transferred to the Jadriya bunker, where prisoners were held in rooms similar to those at Al Nosour and allowed to use the toilet only every three days. Some of the officers boasted on the first day that they worked for the Badr Organization. The prisoners, mostly Sunni Arabs, were forced to wear blindfolds virtually the entire time.

"We were beaten with cables, hoses and wooden sticks," and often given electric shocks, Abu Jasim said. "Your back would turn purple or dark blue, depending on what you were beaten with."

He said he and his two relatives were set free after their families paid a total of $24,000.

A senior American officer said the decision to move on the center came after a flow of reports reaching the Americans, including one from a woman looking for her 15-year-old son, described the center as "a notorious address" where people were being held for long periods and mistreated. The missing boy was not among the 173 detainees found.

Sabrina Tavernise, Ali Adeeb and Khalid al-Ansary contributed reporting for this article.