Challenge for U.S.: Iraq's Handling of Detainees

By EDWARD WONG

New York Times

March 24, 2006

CAMP JUSTICE, Iraq The blindfolded detainees in the dingy hallway line up in groups of five for their turn to see a judge, like schoolchildren outside the principal's office.

Each meeting lasts a few minutes. The judge rules whether the detainee will go free, face trial or be held longer at this Iraqi base in northern Baghdad. But Firas Sabri Ali, squeezed into a fetid cell just hundreds of yards from the judge's office, has watched the inmates come and go for four months without his name ever being called.

He is jailed, along with two brothers and his father, solely as collateral, he says. The Iraqi forces are hunting another brother, suspected of being an insurgent. The chief American medic here says that he believes Mr. Ali to be innocent but that it is up to the Iraqi police to decide whether to free him. The Iraqis acknowledged that they were holding Mr. Ali until they captured his brother.

"I hope they catch him, because then I'll be released," said Mr. Ali, 38, a soft-spoken man who until his arrest worked for a British security company to support his wife and three sons. "They said, 'You must wait.' I told them: 'There's no law. This is injustice.' "

Such is the challenge facing the American military as it tries to train the Iraqi security forces to respect the rule of law. Three years after the invasion of Iraq, American troops are no longer simply teaching counterinsurgency techniques; they are trying to school the Iraqis in battling a Sunni-led rebellion without resorting to the tactics of a "dirty war," involving abductions, torture and murder.

The legacy of Abu Ghraib hampers the American military. But the need to instill respect for human rights has gained a new urgency as Iraq grapples with the threat of full-scale civil war and continuing sectarian bloodletting. It is not uncommon now for dozens of bodies, with hands bound and gunshot wounds to the heads, to surface across Baghdad on any given day.

The Americans are pushing the Shiite-dominated Iraqi forces to ask judges for arrest warrants, restrain their use of force and ensure detainees' rights.

The Iraqi officers at this base, the headquarters of the Public Order Forces, a police paramilitary division with a history of torture and abuse, are gradually changing their behavior, American military advisers say. Cases of detainee abuse have declined in recent months, they say.

But detainees can still languish for months without any hope of a legal appeal because of a shortage of judges or, in the case of Mr. Ali, an unwillingness by the Iraqi police to allow detainees to see a judge. Overcrowding is chronic, because the Justice Ministry has been slow in building new prisons.

"The tradition in this country of a law enforcement agency that had absolute power over people, we've got to break them of that," said Maj. Andrew Creel, the departing joint operations officer here. "I think it'll take years. You can't change a cultural mind-set overnight."

Control of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, has become one of the stumbling blocks in forming the new national government, with Sunni Arab politicians accusing Shiite leaders of running militias and death squads from the ministry.

Last fall the American military raided at least two police prisons where it said detainees had been abused. This year's State Department human rights report noted that the police, especially the paramilitary forces, had been accused of torture and killings.

Those forces number 17,500. This base in the heart of Kadhimiya, just blocks away from a golden-domed Shiite shrine serves as the headquarters for one of the two major paramilitary branches, the 7,700-member Public Order Forces. An 11-member American military team began advising the Iraqi commanders here last spring. It moved into the base in October and is now handing over its duties to a new team.

Here, 650 prisoners are packed into four spartan rooms. They complain of a lack of food and regular access to showers and toilets. A foul odor wafts from each holding pen. To cope with the overcrowded conditions, the police converted the dining hall into a cell; the three other areas were originally built as storage rooms.

Camp Justice was never meant to hold prisoners for more than a few weeks. Iraqi law says prisoners to be tried are to be transferred to a Justice Ministry penitentiary after interrogation. But the ministry has been unable to build enough jails to keep pace with arrests. It has 10 centers across Iraq, which hold 7,500 detainees, and an additional 7 are expected to be built, a ministry spokesman said.

So the detainee population at temporary police prisons like the one here, separate from those of the Justice Ministry, has ballooned to more than 10,000 in Baghdad alone, spread across a shadowy network of about 10 centers, an Interior Ministry official said.

That has ignited concerns among American officials. But Col. Gordon Davis Jr., the head of Camp Justice's departing advisory team, praised the Iraqi commander here, Maj. Gen. Mehdi Sabih Hashem al-Garawi, for showing a willingness to embrace human rights. The general has, for instance, assigned the Iraqi division's only medic to look after the detainees.

"I won't say he's gone 180, but he's realized that the best way of getting information is not to beat or abuse detainees," Colonel Davis said as he stood in the operations room, the walls plastered with maps of Baghdad.

"The current generation has been brought up with a certain code and a certain tolerance for abuse," he said in another interview. "They've got to be constantly worked on."

The academy for recruits to the Public Order Forces has increased the time spent on human rights training to 20 hours from about eight last October, the colonel said.

Lt. Col. Dhia al-Shammari, the chief interrogator and a supervisor of detainee operations, said: "Beating or insults, any policeman can do. Professionals don't use them. This is not allowed, and I myself reject it."

Certain Public Order units have had fearsome reputations, and residents of Baghdad and nearby towns have complained of abuse and torture. From April to June of last year, American advisers found prisoners with bruises at the headquarters of the Second Brigade every couple of weeks, Colonel Davis said.

When confronted with incidents of abuse, the colonel said, the Iraqi brigade commander told the Americans, "Are you more worried about our enemies or about us?"

That officer was replaced at the urging of the Americans. So was a commander of the Third Brigade, in Salman Pak. Prisoner abuse has been relatively rare here at the division level, the advisers say, and became even scarcer after the American team moved in last fall. Before that, the advisers had been living at an American base. If the Americans saw a bruised prisoner back then, they often kept quiet for fear of alienating the Iraqi officers, said Master Sgt. Joseph Kaiser, a medic who regularly examines the detainees.

Now the Americans can be more direct, advisers say. The Americans have trained a 32-man guard force. Sergeant Kaiser helps supervise the Iraqi medic who examines the detainees daily.

The Iraqi division's intelligence chief "said we have to treat detainees, since they're subjected to visits by the press and human rights groups," said the medic, Hazem, 32, who declined to give his full name for security reasons. "He said to me, 'Your main job is to treat the patients, not to check if they're terrorists.' If I know they're terrorists and I'm told to kill them, I'd kill them. But I do what my job requires."

Checking on the Detainees

On a balmy afternoon, as Sergeant Kaiser walked up to a holding pen to make one of his daily health checks, a blindfolded man in a brown leather jacket squatted outside the metal door. The man was awaiting interrogation, said several guards with Kalashnikov rifles.

The guards went into the cell and brought out Mr. Ali, the man whose brother is being hunted by the Iraqi police. Dressed in a blue and pink tracksuit and a black ski cap, he shuffled up to the sergeant. Because Mr. Ali speaks English, he serves as an unofficial cellblock leader.

"How are the people inside?" Sergeant Kaiser asked.

"We need to have more food," Mr. Ali said. Mr. Ali said he dreaded the idea of American advisers leaving this base one day. "That's bad," he said, shaking his head. "That's very bad. We need the sergeant or another American officer here. When we see them we say, 'Please stay here.' "

A reporter asked Mr. Ali whether detainees had been abused or tortured. "Don't ask these questions," he said, lowering his voice. "You know that."

Sergeant Kaiser said that since September, when he joined the advisory team, he had found only "a few" cases of abuse. He recalled two that he had written up. Prisoners have been brought in with baton marks, he said, but they might have been resisting arrest.

Sergeant Kaiser and Mr. Ali stepped into the cell. Some sunlight streamed in through three small windows near the roof. Three ceiling fans whirred. The 140 detainees mostly sat up on blankets; there was not enough room for them to lie down without touching each other. By the door, one detainee used an electric hair clipper to shave the head of another. A man with glasses sat reading the Koran.

The detainees complained that family visits occurred only once every couple of months. The sick lay on blankets. Sergeant Kaiser gave medicine for diarrhea to a man in gray robes and tablets for oral fungus to an inmate with yellowing teeth. He poked at the torso of a man with rib pains.

"Some are innocent," said a guard, Sabah Ali, 21, as he looked around the room. "But some have given their confessions and they are guilty. Those who are innocent, we'll release them."

But those detainees sometimes end up waiting months before being freed, because the division prefers to release detainees in large groups.

Prisoners from the division's field units are funneled to this base "so you can exploit intelligence and take any opportunity for abuse out of the field," said Lt. Col. John Shattuck, the deputy commander of the advisory team.

Seeking Arrest Warrants

Since his appointment to Camp Justice in February, Judge Majid has come for several hours almost every day. He is a nervous man dressed in a dark suit who prefers that his full name not be printed.

Detainees are marched from cells in groups of five to see him in an office. The ringing of his cellphone can keep him up at all hours he is expected to be on call around the clock to approve an arrest warrant if the Iraqi forces suddenly come up someone they want to detain.

Arrest warrants were mandated by Interior Ministry officials starting last July to provide some accountability, especially among the paramilitary forces. It is unclear, though, how closely field units stick to the requirement.

The Iraqi operations officer at Camp Justice says warrants are needed only for apprehending people on the Interior Ministry's wanted list, not for instances in which the police may be responding to a report of suspicious activity.

Colonel Davis says the warrant policy has had some effect. Because of it, and because the Iraqis are improving their intelligence gathering, the Public Order Forces no longer round up hundreds of people on each raid, he said. On a typical operation, he added, they may take in a dozen.

After being brought here, the detainees are fingerprinted and have their retinas scanned. A photograph is taken, partly to record their condition at the time of arrest. The Americans have asked the Iraqis to deliver a daily report accounting for all detainees held throughout the division; one recent printout listed 896.

The law says detainees are entitled to have their cases reviewed by a judge every two weeks, but there are not enough judges, said Colonel Shammari, the chief interrogator.

The main question, one impossible to answer for now, is whether respect for rule of law will become deeply rooted in the Iraqi forces, despite a tradition of tyranny in this country, as the guerrilla war continues to rage.

Outside one of the prison cells, a blue-uniformed guard, Salim Abdul Hassan, 35, watched as his colleagues led blindfolded detainees to a row of outdoor toilets.

He said that the American training had been of great help, but that "it would be much better if the Iraqis worked on their own without the Americans."

"We wouldn't be tied down," he said. "Three-quarters of the terrorists ask for the help of the Americans. They want to be in the care of the Americans, not the Iraqis."

Khalid al-Ansary and Max Becherer contributed reporting for this article.