Iraqi Security Tactics Evoke the Hussein Era

Special to The Times

The public war on the Iraqi insurgency has led to an atmosphere of hidden brutalities, including abuse and torture, carried out against detainees by the nation’s special security forces, according to defense lawyers, international organizations and Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights.

Up to 60% of the estimated 12,000 detainees in the country’s prisons and military compounds face intimidation, beatings or torture that leads to broken bones and sometimes death, said Saad Sultan, head of a board overseeing the treatment of prisoners at the Human Rights Ministry. He added that police and security forces attached to the Interior Ministry are responsible for most abuses.

The units have used tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s secret intelligence squads, according to the ministry and independent human rights groups and lawyers, who have cataloged abuses.


“We’ve documented a lot of torture cases,” said Sultan, whose committee is pushing for wider access to Iraqi-run prisons across the nation. “There are beatings, punching, electric shocks to the body, including sensitive areas, hanging prisoners upside down and beating them and dragging them on the ground.... Many police officers come from a culture of torture from their experiences over the last 35 years. Most of them worked during Saddam’s regime.”

The ordeal described by Hussam Guheithi is similar to many cases. When Iraqi national guardsmen raided his home last month, the 35-year-old Sunni Muslim imam said they lashed him with cables, broke his nose and promised to soak their uniforms with his blood. He was blindfolded and driven to a military base, where he was interrogated and beaten until the soldiers were satisfied that he wasn’t an extremist.

At the end of nine days, Guheithi said, the guardsmen told him, “You have to bear with us. You know the situation now. We’re trying to find terrorists.”

The Interior Ministry, responsible for the nation’s internal security, acknowledges cases of mistreatment but denies that torture is common. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is a Shiite Muslim, and some Sunni Muslim tribal leaders and politicians have accused the ministry of unfairly targeting Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency.

“There are no official accusations that the ministry’s forces are carrying out widespread abuse and torture of detainees,” said Col. Adnan Joubouri, a ministry spokesman. “There was some abuse of authority, and those officials responsible are being punished.”

U.S. officials, whose image on detainment issues has already been tarnished by the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, say they are troubled by the allegations of torture. They worry that mistreatment by Iraqi police and national guardsmen, thousands of whom were trained by American instructors who sought to steer the departments away from Hussein’s corrupt legacy, may be viewed as an extension of Abu Ghraib.

“We understand and we hear that [torture] is potentially happening, and this is an issue we are constantly talking about,” said a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. “I think this is an issue no one can afford to ignore.”

Stories of torture and abuse against suspected Shiite and Sunni criminals and rebels are unfolding in the midst of the campaign against a relentless insurgency. Iraqi forces are frustrated by their inability to stop car bombings and ambushes that have killed more than 1,000 people in recent weeks.

Rising crime, a shaky court system, the lack of a constitution to define civil rights and an Interior Ministry underequipped to pursue well-armed rebel networks have made human rights less of an immediate concern for Iraqis than bringing order to the nation, Iraqi and U.S. officials say.

Having endured more than two years of violence since the U.S.-led invasion, many Iraqis favor tough measures to end the unrest. The death penalty was recently reinstated, and for much of the country there is an unspoken acceptance -- often rooted in harsh tribal justice -- that intimidation and torture serve a purpose. Such attitudes are complicated by sectarian strains between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Under Hussein, the minority Sunnis were the core of the ruling Baath Party and controlled the country. The new Iraqi government is dominated by Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraq’s population. Each side blames the other for the bloodshed. This dynamic poses an incendiary possibility: Accounts of torture in detention given by Sunni extremists might have been fabricated or embellished to help instigate a civil war against Shiites and the government. The Human Rights Ministry says it has encountered made-up allegations of abuse.

“Ninety percent of detainees say that they confessed under torture,” said Judge Luqman Thabit Samiraii, head of the 1st Iraqi Central Criminal Court. “Yet 80% of them have no torture marks. But torture does exist during interrogations, I admit that.”

The courts aren’t always willing to explore abuse claims. In a trial last month, Samiraii denied a defense lawyer’s request to have four suspects medically examined to determine whether their confessions to the murder of an Interior Ministry official had been induced by torture. The defendants, three of whom were sentenced to death, said they had been repeatedly beaten. One of them said police had sodomized him with a metal rod.

Before the four men appeared in the courtroom, their confessions had been aired on the popular Iraqi television program “Terrorism in the Hands of Justice.” The show is the government’s attempt to demystify the insurgency by portraying suspected rebels as brutish killers rather than revolutionaries. Defense lawyers argue that some of the accused are coerced into giving confessions and that the program violates defendants’ right to a fair trial.

“The Americans are occupying the country, but the Iraqi national guard and Iraqi police are violating the human rights of detainees,” said Sattar Raouf, director of the Popular Committee for Culture and Arts, who has followed allegations of abuse. “Intelligence and security forces are torturing people for confessions. You can go to the sixth and seventh floors of the Interior Ministry and find case after case like this.”

The Interior and Justice ministries have been struggling over control of prisons and detention centers. Interior operates in a secret realm of intelligence networks in which suspects can be jailed or vanish for weeks. Sultan said his committee has found less abuse in centers under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry. He added that Justice has stricter oversight on inmate conditions and is less involved than Interior in interrogating suspects, including alleged insurgents.

A report this year by the international organization Human Rights Watch found that abuse had become “routine and commonplace” and that detainees were often beaten and held in violation of judicial process, including not receiving court hearings within 24 hours of their arrests. The group stated that some detainees -- many of whom are arrested based on tips by paid informants -- waited months before a court appearance.

“One of the most common complaints made by detainees,” said Human Rights Watch, which interviewed 90 current and former detainees in 2004, “was of police officials threatening them with indefinite detention if they failed to pay them sums of money.”

The abuses reported by former detainees and human rights organizations echo some of the Hussein regime’s tactics: poor legal protection, crowded cells, electric shock, threats of sexual abuse and hanging and beating prisoners for prolonged periods.

Abbas Jibouri said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that about 25 national guard members raided his house on the morning of May 8.

A 41-year-old farmer from the Maden area near Baghdad, Jibouri, whose account could not be verified, said he had been taken to a detainee center and later transferred to the national guard base at Rustumiya.

“There was always one man interrogating me and four or five others who punched me in different parts of my body,” said Jibouri, a Sunni. “They accused me of providing terrorists with weapons and money.... They gave me a list of 10 names and told me to give information about their being terrorists. One of the names belonged to my brother and another was a neighbor of mine who actually died a year or so ago.”

Jibouri said he was beaten with pipes and given electrical shocks. “I didn’t know when it would end,” he said.

At one point, Jibouri said, interrogators told him: “You [Sunnis] ruled the country for 35 years. We’re going to retaliate now.” Jibouri was released after 10 days in custody. He was not charged with a crime.

Guheithi, the Sunni imam, has been detained by American as well as Iraqi forces. He said U.S. troops had arrested him in January 2004 and accused him of preaching holy war at his mosque. He said he was held in solitary confinement for seven days and released. American soldiers, he said, “didn’t torture me, but an Iraqi man with them punched me hard several times.”

Last month, Iraqi national guardsmen handcuffed Guheithi at the home of his brother in the Rasafa neighborhood of Baghdad.

“They were beating me and my brothers in front of our children,” he said. “They told me that I was helping the insurgents by sending trucks to Fallouja during the first [anti-insurgent] offensive in April 2004. They had piles of reports about me. I was actually only sending humanitarian aid to the people there, which I gathered from our mosque.”

He said he was held for nine days in the Taji camp, which is used by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“I stayed there with 19 other people in a very small room with no windows,” said Guheithi, who added that he was often blindfolded and beaten. “When they found that we had no information, they set us free.... I and other detainees about to be released had to swear that we were not terrorists and that we are going to participate in building a democratic country.”


Times staff writer Carol J. Williams contributed to this report.