Elite units controlled by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's military office are ignoring members of parliament and the government's own directive by operating a clandestine jail in Baghdad's Green Zone where prisoners routinely face torture to extract confessions, Iraqi officials say.
Iraqi legislators and security officials have been joined by the International Committee of the Red Cross in expressing concern about the facility, called Camp Honor. In a confidential letter to the prime minister, the Red Cross requested immediate access to the jail and added that there could be three more connected to it where detainees also are being mistreated.
Iraq's Justice Ministry ordered Camp Honor shut down in March after parliament's human rights committee toured the center and said it had uncovered evidence of torture. The Human Rights Ministry denied Wednesday that it was still in operation. But several Iraqi officials familiar with the site said that anywhere from 60 to 120 people have been held there since it was ordered closed.
Allegations that the jail has continued to function are likely to launch a fresh debate about the breadth of powers belonging to Maliki and his closest associates. The jail falls under the prime minister's Office of the Commander in Chief, which supervises a vast military and security apparatus.
Maliki supporters say he is committed to protecting human rights, but needs broad powers to navigate a treacherous domestic environment. The prime minister, a Shiite Muslim, is reluctant to loosen his grip on the army, police and his elite combat units, believing that any compromise would make it easier for opponents to organize a coup or political conspiracy, or would allow armed Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups to gain strength.
Maliki also has refused to permit his main political rival, the Iraqiya bloc led by Iyad Allawi, to choose the next defense minister, in defiance of an understanding on division of authority that took months to hammer out after inconclusive elections in March 2010. The position has remained vacant, with Maliki filling it for now.
The agreement also called for all security forces to be removed from the prime minister's office and restored to the normal chain of command. But the protracted negotiations over who should hold the key defense and interior ministries, which could stretch into next year, have allowed Maliki to preserve his authority.
The dispute over who directs Iraq's security forces is fueling a sense of drift as tens of thousands of U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq. U.S. forces ended combat operations last year, and the remaining 46,000 troops are to leave by the end of this year. The United States has offered to keep some troops in Iraq after that deadline to help ensure stability, but that requires Iraqi consent, which is far from certain.
Adnan Assadi, a member of the prime minister's political coalition who serves as deputy interior minister, said in an interview that it was vital for Maliki to maintain control of Iraq's security because he will be blamed for any failures.
"The ministries of Defense and Interior are like the right and left hand for the commander in chief," Assadi said.
Until the inspection in March, the Camp Honor jail had illustrated the prime minister's supremacy on security matters. He has faced complaints since 2008 about his control of the U.S.-trained counter-terrorism service and a security force known as the Baghdad Brigade, or Brigade 56. The units possessed their own jails, investigative judges and interrogators, answering only to the prime minister's military office.
Critics say that many of those jailed by the forces are locked up for political reasons, because of personal feuds or to cover up corruption. But because of the opaque nature of the security forces and the jails they run, it is difficult to determine whether that is true.
The prime minister's military office promised reforms when, in April 2010, it was found to be running a separate secret jail in western Baghdad, where more than 400 inmates had been held for months. But nothing changed at Camp Honor, where family members and attorneys were barred from seeing detainees and allegations of torture were rampant.
Lawmakers, security officials and the Red Cross letter expressed deep concern that despite parliament's success in extracting the pledge to close Camp Honor, people were still being imprisoned there.
Detainees "are still being held by the counter-terrorism center or Brigade 56 in the same location they declared was shut down," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, the head of parliament's human rights committee. "These people are held 30-50 days. After they have obtained confessions, the detainee is transferred to Rusafa with his confession," he added, referring to one of Baghdad's main detention facilities.
The people in Maliki's military office haven't changed their practices, said a second member of parliament, who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could comment freely. "They have more power. They have more prisoners. They are holding them in the IZ," the Green Zone, said the lawmaker, a prominent member of the Iraqiya bloc. "This is the reality."
Jabouri said he became aware of the detentions after he started looking for a leader of the Sunni Awakening movement who had helped U.S. troops fight Islamic extremists in northern Iraq.
Jabouri said he received a phone call about three weeks ago from the man, who said he had been transferred to a regular jail after he was tortured in the Green Zone facility and confessed to being a member of the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and of a wing of the late dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
As many as 120 detainees had been through the secret jail since March, Jabouri said. Most of the cases he knew of involved prisoners from provinces with large Sunni populations, where security forces regularly carry out raids looking for Islamic militants and members of the former Baath Party.
The Red Cross said in its May 22 letter that detainees whom it interviewed after they had been transferred out of the facility reported beatings, electric shock to the genitals and other parts of the body, suffocation using plastic bags, scalding with boiling water or burning with cigarettes, being hung from ceilings with hands tied behind the back or being hung upside down from the top frame of a bunk bed, the pulling out of fingernails, being left naked for hours and rape using sticks or bottles.
Detainees also alleged that female family members were brought to Camp Honor and raped in front of them, the Red Cross said.
A security official confirmed that detainees were guarded at Camp Honor by the Baghdad Brigade, probably in a building that can hold up to 60 or 70 prisoners that had been used previously to hide detainees when inspectors came to the base.
Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh referred questions about the facility to the Human Rights Ministry, where officials insisted that it had been shut down. "Absolutely, it is closed," said ministry official Kamal Amin.
Supporters say Maliki shouldn't be held responsible for abuses by people within the ranks of the security forces.
"Maliki has given very tough directions to respect human rights," said lawmaker Ali Alaq, a senior member of the prime minister's Islamic Dawa Party. "I know the leaders in the Office [of the Commander in Chief] are accurate and professional, but you know sometimes there are forces who say they belong to this office and do really bad things. Sometimes they are even connected to terrorist groups."
The Red Cross letter to the Iraqi government said the organization was "seriously worried regarding the possibility that the interrogations are continuing in Camp Honor."
The letter, shown to The Times by an Iraqi source, cited what it called credible allegations that three other secret facilities existed in the Green Zone, which it said were still being used "to hide and hold detainees when committees visit the main prison." It said one was near the counter-terrorism service's headquarters and that the two others were known as the Flag and Five Star.
The Red Cross declined to confirm or deny the authenticity of the letter because of its policy of not discussing publicly its detainee inspections or correspondence with governments.
The letter said the Red Cross had visited Camp Honor last December but was forced to leave after less than two hours. It said its teams, which included medical personnel, gained information about the facility by interviewing detainees around the country at prisons and detention centers where they had been transferred.
The interviews, done at different times and places, "show that [the detainees] were exposed to systematic mistreatment during their detention in Camp Honor that reached the level of torture due to its severity and the goal of it to extract confessions or information."
Detainees reported that investigative judges were present during interrogation sessions in which they were mistreated, the letter said. It also said the Red Cross was concerned that the tactics were still being used and asked for full access to the facility and all detainees held there.