ICRC visits detainees held by Iraq government

GENEVA (Reuters) – The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday it had carried out its first visit to security detainees held by Iraq’s central government.

Jakob Kellenberger, the ICRC president, said he hoped that the visit to Fort Suse near Sulaimaniya in October would lead to a comprehensive deal for access to the estimated 30,000 to 35,000 prisoners held by Iraqi authorities.

The humanitarian agency has sought for more than a year to monitor all prisoners held by Iraqi authorities, including those under the Interior Ministry. Sunni Arabs have accused the Shi’ite-led ministry of operating torture centers and dungeons holding Sunni detainees.

“We were able to make the visit a few weeks ago. We are still in negotiations with them on an agreement,” Kellenberger told a news conference.

Iraqi officials told the ICRC at the time of the visit that some 1,700 inmates were held at Fort Suse facility, which was previously run by the U.S.-led forces in Iraq, according to ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas.

“We were able to meet a certain number of detainees privately in order to monitor detention conditions and treatment,” Krimitsas told reporters.

She declined to give more details, in line with the agency’s traditional terms of confidentiality. “We hope to be able to visit more places across Iraq,” she added.

The ICRC requires governments to allow its officials to interview detainees in private. Its confidential reports on conditions and treatment of prisoners are sent only to the detaining authorities, who are meant to allow follow-up visits.

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The agency is already carrying out regular visits to some 20,000 prisoners held by American forces and the semi-autonomous Kurdish authorities in the north.

Kellenberger was launching the ICRC’s annual appeal for funds, a record 1.09 billion Swiss francs ($973.2 million) to help save lives next year in Iraq, Sudan and other hotspots around the world.

Iraq will be the ICRC’s largest operation in 2008 with a budget of more than 107 million Swiss francs — nearly double the organization’s initial budget for the country this year.

In addition to supplying hospitals with medicines and equipment, the ICRC will also help repair Iraq’s water and sanitation system and provide food and other aid to families who have fled their homes due to fighting.

Kellenberger, referring to the hoped-for agreement on detention centre visits, said: “If it would materialize, it would mean a big additional activity for the organization.”

The ICRC — whose Baghdad headquarters were bombed in October 2003 — is among only a few humanitarian agencies to deploy expatriates in Iraq, some 50 to 60, in addition to 500 Iraqi staff.

But Iraq remains a “very difficult place” for aid workers, especially those trying to travel to and from detention centers, according to Kellenberger, a former senior Swiss diplomat.

“You could have gradually improved security situation but that does not necessarily mean you have a decrease in need for humanitarian assistance,” he added.

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