BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Iraq’s interior minister dismissed reports of prisoner abuse at a secret Baghdad bunker on Thursday, prompting a stern response from the US embassy in an affair that threatens to aggravate sectarian tensions.
Less than two hours after Interior Minister Bayan Jabor tried to justify his ministry’s actions in the case of 170 men found half starving and beaten in a ministry compound, the US embassy denounced such abuses.
“We do not tolerate any abuse of detainees in Iraq. Even one case is too much, anywhere,” embassy spokesman Jim Bullock said at an unscheduled appearance in Baghdad.
“We have made clear to the Iraqi government that there must not be militia or sectarian control or direction of Iraqi security forces, facilities or ministries.
“The Iraqi government must take measures to ensure this kind of thing does not happen again.” His statement appeared to be a direct response to Jabor, who earlier not only played down the affair, but also contradicted Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who was one of the first to acknowledge that abuses had taken place at the prison.
Jaafari has ordered an investigation, and the United Nations has also called for a thorough examination of the affair.
The bunker was discovered by US forces during a raid on Sunday. Inside they found 173 men and teenage boys, many of them malnourished, beaten and showing signs of torture.
“The talk about this has been inaccurate,” a defiant Jabor told a packed news conference, his first public appearance since the scandal broke, adding that he had only commented on the issue because his aides had pressured him to do so.
He dismissed accusations that he had condoned torture.
His voice rose angrily as he dismissed a series of accusations, including that he had condoned torture by a feared Shiite militia group linked to his ministry. He said only a handful of prisoners appeared to have been beaten.
“There were only five, or at most seven, who showed signs of having been beaten,” he said. “I don’t accept for any officer to even slap a prisoner.” The discovery of the prison, where most of those held were Sunni Arabs, has sharply raised sectarian tensions in the country less than a month before elections are held.
Many Sunni Arabs blame the Shiite-led interior ministry for allowing militias and police “death squads” to harass and detain Sunnis suspected of involvement in the insurgency.
At the same time, many Shiites have been the victims of car bombs, assassinations and violent kidnappings by Sunni Arab militants over the past two years.
The evidence of abuse at an Iraqi-run detention facility comes little more than 18 months after it emerged that US troops physically abused and sexually humiliated Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
That scandal fuelled the insurgency against US forces and the Iraqi government and led to a series of US courts martial, with at least eight low-level soldiers convicted of abuse.
US embassy spokesman Bullock said Jaafari was determined both to investigate abuse and ensure it did not happen again.
“The prime minister has agreed to a six-point plan for dealing with all allegations of detainee abuse,” Bullock said, adding that the US Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation would aid the investigation.
The scandal comes ahead of elections on December 15 which are already being played out against a backdrop of sectarian violence as Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters battle the Shiite-and Kurdish-led government and its US backers.
Political leaders from Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority have demanded an international investigation into allegations that Shiite militias linked to the interior ministry were responsible for the torture and abuse.
But the head of the main Shiite militia, the Badr Organisation, which has close ties to the interior ministry and to the most powerful Shiite political party in the government, denies any link to the detention bunker.
With rights groups expressing outrage, the media carried gruesome accounts on Thursday of how some of the detainees were treated, including the alleged use of saws and razors.
“This is unacceptable and claims we used things to carve people’s limbs are absurd,” Jabor said, adding that Iraq abided by the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war.
In the west of Iraq on Thursday, US and Iraqi forces continued an offensive against Al Qaeda militants.
Five US Marines were killed in a firefight with insurgents on Wednesday in New Ubaydi, near the border with Syria, close to where Operation Steel Curtain began on November 5.
Sixteen insurgents were killed in the same engagement.
A US official urged other nations to keep troops in Iraq at least until Iraqi forces could take over security.
“We hope that the countries who have troops will keep them at least long enough to allow the Iraqis to step up and as the Iraqis step up, the coalition forces wil be able to step back,” Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried told a news briefing in Brussels. Fried said the debate about possible withdrawals, prompted by British comments that it could pull out next year if Iraqi security forces were strong enough, had been “over-written and over-interpreted”.
“We need to stay until that mission [in Iraq] is successful,” he said, declining to talk about possible timetables.