BAGHDAD, Iraq - 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 federal Human Rights Ministry.
Up to 60 percent of the estimated 12,000 detainees in the country's prisons and military compounds face intimidation, light beatings or more intense torture that leads to scars, 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 Iraqi Interior Ministry were responsible for most violations.
The units have used tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's secret intelligence squads, according to abuses catalogued by the ministry and independent human rights groups and lawyers.
"We've documented a lot of torture cases," said Sultan, whose committee is pushing for wider access to Iraq-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 the 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 federal Interior Ministry, responsible for the nation's internal security, acknowledges cases of mistreatment but denies that torture is common. Interior Minister Baqir Solagh Jabur 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 has already been tarnished by the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, say they are troubled about torture arising from security and police forces in the new Iraq government. 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.
Stories of torture and abuse against suspected Shiite and Sunni criminals and rebels are unfolding against a relentless insurgency that has Iraqi forces frustrated over their inability to stop car bombs and ambushes that have killed more than 1,000 people in recent weeks.
Rising crime, a shaky court system, a still-unwritten constitution to define civil rights and an underequipped Interior Ministry pursuing well-armed rebel networks have made human rights less of an immediate concern for Iraqis than bringing order to the nation, say Iraqi and U.S. officials.
Enduring more than two years of violence since the U.S.-led invasion, many Iraqis favor tougher 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 the harsh ways of tribal justice - that intimidation and torture serve a purpose. Such attitudes are complicated by growing sectarian strains between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
The minority Sunnis made up the core of Hussein's Baath Party and controlled the country. The new Iraqi government is dominated by the majority population of Shiites. Both sides blame each other for the increased bloodshed. This sectarian dynamic poses another incendiary element: the fabrication and embellishment of accounts of torture given by previously detained Sunni extremists to help instigate a civil war against Shiites and the government. The Human Rights Ministry says it has encountered made-up cases of abuse.
"Ninety percent of detainees say that they confessed under torture," said Judge Luqman Thabit Samiraii, head of the First Iraqi Central Criminal Court. "Yet 80 percent of them have no torture marks. But torture does exist during interrogations, I admit that."
The courts aren't always willing to explore abuse allegations. In a trial last month, Samiraii denied a request by a defense lawyer to have four suspects medically examined to determine whether their confessions to murdering an Interior Ministry official were induced by torture. The defendants, three of whom were sentenced to death, said they were repeatedly beaten, including one who claimed that police sodomized him with a metal rod.
Before the four men appeared in the courtroom, their confessions were aired on the popular Iraqi television program Terrorism in the Hands of Justice. The show is an attempt by the government to demystify the insurgency by portraying suspected rebels as brutish killers rather than revolutionaries. Defense lawyers argue some of the accused are coerced into giving confessions and that the program violates a defendant's 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."
Control of prisons and detention centers has turned into a turf battle between the Interior and Justice ministries. The Interior Ministry operates in a secret realm of intelligence networks into which suspects can be jailed and vanish for weeks. Sultan said his committee has found less abuse in centers under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry. He added that the Justice Ministry has stricter oversight on inmate conditions.
A report earlier this year by the international organization Human Rights Watch found that abuse has become "routine and commonplace" and that detainees are often beaten and held in violation of judicial process. The group stated that some detainees - many of them arrested based on tips by paid informants - waited months before a court appearance.
"One of the most common complaints made by detainees," according to 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 abuse reported by former detainees and human rights organizations echoes some of the tactics inflicted by the Hussein regime: poor legal protection, crowded cells, electrical shock, threats of sexual abuse and the prolonged hanging and beating of prisoners.
Abbas Jibouri said in an interview that about 25 national guard members raided his house May 8. A 41-year-old farmer from the Maden area near Baghdad, Jibouri, whose case could not be independently verified, said he was taken to a detainee center and later transferred to the national guard base at Rustumiya.
Jibouri said he was beaten with pipes and given electrical shocks. "I didn't know when it would end," he said.
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. He was not charged with a crime.
Over 17 months, Guheithi was detained by American and Iraqi forces. The Sunni imam said U.S. troops 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 Guard members handcuffed Guheithi at the home of his brother in Baghdad's Rasafa area.
He said he was held for nine days in the Taji camp 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."