Most ‘Arrested by Mistake’

Times Staff Writer

Coalition military intelligence officials estimated that 70% to 90% of prisoners detained in Iraq since the war began last year “had been arrested by mistake,” according to a confidential Red Cross report given to the Bush administration earlier this year.

Yet the report described a wide range of prisoner mistreatment -- including many new details of abusive techniques -- that it said U.S. officials had failed to halt, despite repeated complaints from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

ICRC monitors saw some improvements by early this year, but the continued abuses “went beyond exceptional cases and might be considered as a practice tolerated” by coalition forces, the report concluded.


The Swiss-based ICRC, which made 29 visits to coalition-run prisons and camps between late March and November last year, said it repeatedly presented its reports of mistreatment to prison commanders, U.S. military officials in Iraq and members of the Bush administration in Washington.

The ICRC summary report, which was written in February, also said Red Cross officials had complained to senior military officials that families of Iraqi suspects usually were told so little that most arrests resulted “in the de facto ‘disappearance’ of the arrestee for weeks or even months.”

The report also described previously undocumented forms of abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody. In October, for example, an Iraqi prisoner was “hooded, handcuffed in the back, and made to lie face down” on what investigators believe was the engine hood of a vehicle while he was being transported. He was hospitalized for three months for extensive burns to his face, abdomen, foot and hand, the report added.

More than 100 “high-value detainees,” apparently including former senior officials in Saddam Hussein’s regime and in some cases their family members, were held for five months at the Baghdad airport “in strict solitary confinement” in small cells for 23 hours a day, the report said.

Such conditions “constituted a serious violation” of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, which set minimum standards for treatment of prisoners of war and civilian internees, the report said. U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, conducted interrogations at the site, but Army units were in charge of custody operations, officials said Monday.

Portions of the ICRC report were published last week. The full 24-page report, which The Times obtained Monday, cites more than 250 allegations of mistreatment at prisons and temporary detention facilities run by U.S. and other occupation forces across Iraq.


The report also referred to, but provided no details of, “allegations of deaths as a result of harsh internment conditions, ill treatment, lack of medical attention, or the combination thereof.”

Spokesmen at the Pentagon and at U.S. Central Command headquarters said they had not seen the ICRC report and could not comment on specific charges. ICRC officials in Geneva said they regretted that the document became public. The ICRC usually shares its findings only with governments or other authorities to maintain access to detainees held in conflicts around the world.

Among the abusive techniques detailed in the report was forcing detainees to wear hoods for up to four consecutive days.

“Hooding was sometimes used in conjunction with beatings, thus increasing anxiety as to when blows would come,” the report said. “The practice of hooding also allowed the interrogators to remain anonymous and thus to act with impunity.”

In some cases, plastic handcuffs allegedly were so tight for so long that they caused long-term nerve damage. Men were punched, kicked and beaten with rifles and pistols; faces were pressed “into the ground with boots.” Prisoners were threatened with reprisals against family members, execution or transfer to the U.S. lockup at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The report also provides new details about the now-notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the focus of the prisoner abuse scandal.


During a visit to the “isolation section” of Abu Ghraib prison in October, ICRC delegates witnessed prisoners “completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness, allegedly for several consecutive days.”

A military intelligence officer, who is not identified in the report, told the ICRC monitors that such treatment was “part of the process” in which prisoners were given clothing, bedding, lights and toiletries in exchange for cooperation.

The ICRC sent its report to the military police brigade commander in charge of Abu Ghraib after the October visit, and the commander responded Dec. 24, a senior Pentagon official said last week. But the Pentagon did not launch a formal investigation into abuses at the prison until a low-ranking U.S. soldier approached military investigators Jan. 13 and gave them a computer disc of photos.

The ICRC report also describes torture and other brutal practices by Iraqi police working in Baghdad under the U.S.-led occupation.

It cites cases in which suspects held by Iraqi police allegedly were beaten with cables, kicked in the testicles, burned with cigarettes and forced to sign confessions.

In June, a group of men arrested by Iraqi police “allegedly had water poured on their legs and had electrical shocks administered to them with stripped tips of electrical wires,” the report notes.


One man’s mother was brought in, “and the policeman threatened to mistreat her.” Another detainee “was threatened with having his wife brought in and raped.”

“Many persons deprived of their liberty drew parallels between police practices under the occupation with those of the former regime,” the report noted.