BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Iraq is investigating allegations of abuse after more than 160 prisoners were found locked in an interior ministry bunker in Baghdad, many of them beaten and malnourished and some apparently tortured.
The detainees were discovered on Sunday night during a raid by US troops who were searching for a missing teenage boy.
The prisoners were found in an underground cell near an interior ministry compound in Jadriya, a central Baghdad neighbourhood, and many of them showed signs of malnourishment and beatings, Iraqi officials and US military sources said.
“There were 161 detainees in all and they were being treated in an inappropriate way … they were being abused,” Hussein Kamal, a deputy interior minister, told Reuters.
“I’ve never seen such a situation like this during the past two years in Baghdad, this is the worst,” he told CNN.
“I saw signs of physical abuse by brutal beating, one or two detainees were paralysed and some had their skin peeled off from various parts of their bodies.” “This is totally unacceptable treatment and it is denounced by the minister and everyone in Iraq,” he told Reuters.
Kamal said the detainees had all originally been detained with arrest warrants. They had now been moved to another facility where they were receiving medical assistance.
It was not clear why they had been arrested in the first place. Most detainees are suspected of supporting the Sunni Arab insurgency against the Shiite- and Kurdish-led government.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has accused militias linked to the Shiite-run interior ministry and Shiite political parties of rounding up Sunnis in raids and holding them without charge.
The government has denied the accusations.
Kamal said Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shiite, had ordered an investigation into the case of the prisoners in the bunker, to be led by the deputy prime minister, a Kurd.
“Whoever mistreated those detainees, or any detainees in Iraq, will bear legal responsibility and be brought to justice,” Kamal said.
US military sources said troops were shocked when they came across the prisoners, some of whom showed the marks of beatings and looked like they had not been fed well for weeks.
“It’s not what we expected at all, we were looking for a 15-year-old boy,” said a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division, the Baghdad-based US force which conducted the raid.
Meanwhile, US and Iraqi forces pursuing a 10-day-old assault on Al Qaeda militants said they have killed around 30 fighters in western Iraq, capturing some who tried to escape by crawling among a flock of sheep.
Thousands of US and Iraqi troops have been sweeping through towns near the Syrian border as part of Operation Steel Curtain, which was extended on Monday to the town of Ubaydi, on the Euphrates Tiver, 20km from the Syrian border.
A US military statement said a total of about 80 rebels had been killed in Ubaydi, 30 of them since Monday night in what it said was some of the heaviest fighting of the offensive so far, with the insurgents apparently feeling cornered.
“Most of those terrorists were targeted by coalition air strikes, although some were killed in direct small-arms fire engagements,” it said.
Around 150 suspected insurgents have been detained in the operation over the past 10 days.
“Several detainees were captured trying to sneak out of the area by crawling among a flock of sheep,” the statement said.
Some 2,500 US troops and 1,000 Iraqi soldiers have already pushed through the towns of Qusayba and Karabila in what the military says is an offensive aimed at rooting out foreign fighters coming in through Syria to fuel the insurgency.
The operation is also aimed at making it safe for residents to vote in December 15 elections, the military says.
The military said intelligence reports indicated those fighting in Ubaydi had fled from Qusayba and Karabila.
“While the fighting has been sporadic, it has been characterised by commanders on the ground as some of the heaviest since Operation Steel Curtain began November 5,” it said.
“Intelligence reports indicate that the strong resistance … is due in large part to the fact that terrorists believe they are trapped and have nowhere else to go.” Sunni Arab politicians have spoken out against the latest military operations, saying such offensives cause civilian casualties. The military says civilians who fled their homes during the fighting have been housed temporarily and kept safe.
Elsewhere in Iraq, US forces said they had arrested a man they described as a Baath Party leader who had been organising attacks in the restive province of Diyala, north of Baghdad.
A military statement said Hamid Sharki Shadid, who was captured last week, was a former member of Saddam Hussein’s now outlawed Baath Party “and is suspected of being responsible for all anti-Iraqi forces Baath Party activities in that area.”
It said Shadid could provide important information in the hunt for a suspected Baathist insurgent named Abdul Baqi Saadun, who has a $1 million price on his head and has been on the run since Saddam was ousted in April 2003.
“Saadun is wanted for crimes against humanity committed during the 1999 Shiite uprising,” it said, adding that he was now thought to be involved in recruiting and financing foreign fighters in eastern and central Iraq.