Iraq Misses Deadline on Torture Probe,00.html

Wednesday November 30, 2005 9:16 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Iraq's government missed a two-week deadline Wednesday to complete an investigation into torture allegations at an Interior Ministry lockup, a probe which Amnesty International warned may show a pattern of abuse of prisoners by government forces.

The Shiite-led government has insisted the claims are exaggerated; nevertheless, the charges are discrediting U.S. efforts to restore human rights in the country after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

A Sunni Arab politician, Mohammed al-Mishehdani of the Sunni-led National Council for National Dialogue, said simple cases of torture reported in the past were never solved so he had few expectations for this investigation, especially since a general election is due in two weeks.

``We think that the government is not serious in this matter because it does not want to be dragged into controversy while the elections are looming,'' he said.

The probe was launched after Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, disclosed on Nov. 15 that up to 173 detainees - malnourished and some showing signs of torture - had been found in an Interior Ministry building seized by U.S. troops two days earlier.

Al-Jaafari promised that a high-level committee would complete a full investigation into conditions in Interior Ministry detention centers nationwide within two weeks.

On Wednesday, however, Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal said the investigation was still under way. An aide to Deputy Prime Minister Rowsch Nouri Shaways, a Kurd who is heading the committee, said more time was needed.

A U.N. spokesman in Baghdad said the issue of alleged torture in government detention centers was raised in meetings U.N. special envoy Ashraf Jehangir Qazi held last week with al-Jaafari and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

``We take these allegations very seriously and we raise them all the time,'' U.N. spokesman Said Arikat told The Associated Press. ``But we haven't seen any action in terms of results.''

The failure to release results by the two-week deadline did not surprise Sunni Arab politicians. They have long complained of mass arrests and mistreatment of Sunni Arabs - the group that forms the backbone of a 30-month-old insurgency - by Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces.

``We believe that the government is part of this case, so we do not expect that it would try to reveal the truth,'' said Harith al-Obeidi, a spokesman for the General Conference for the People of Iraq.

Amnesty International spokeswoman Nicole Choueiry said the London-based rights group had repeatedly raised torture allegations with Iraqi authorities since last year but knew of no major attempt to get to the bottom of them.

``It's an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed urgently. This month's discovery may be the tip of the iceberg,'' she said by telephone from London, adding that Amnesty has called on the government to allow the United Nations to investigate the claims.

After Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction were never found, the Bush administration defended the war in part as a move to introduce democracy and human rights in Iraq.

But photographs showing U.S. guards abusing Iraqi detainees in Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison and what Iraqis see as the heavy-handed manner of American troops have made many Iraqis skeptical of Washington's goals.

Last weekend, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, was quoted by the British newspaper The Observer as saying that human rights abuses in Iraq were as bad as under Saddam and could get worse.

``We are hearing about secret police, secret bunkers where people are being interrogated,'' he said. ``A lot of Iraqis are being tortured or killed in the course of interrogations.''

But powerful Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim told the AP in an interview Wednesday that the government did not sanction abuses. He blamed Saddam loyalists and militant Muslims for the killings of Shiites and Sunnis.

``I don't believe that there is a single official in the Iraqi government whether a Cabinet minister, a member of parliament or in the presidency who accepts and condones the violation of human rights,'' said al-Hakim, whose party - Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI - controls the Interior Ministry.

Iraq has in recent months been awash with reports of death squads made up of militiamen linked to Shiite political parties who kidnap and kill Sunni Arabs. Shiite politicians deny any part in the killings, but they have triggered reprisals from the Sunnis. Hardly a day goes by without police finding bodies of members of both communities.

SCIRI is linked to the Badr militia, widely blamed for the assassination of Sunni Arabs.

``There are violations, mistakes, torture and beatings,'' said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a senior SCIRI member. ``But you must consider that this is a place that's evolving from being a non-state to a state, and mistakes are bound to happen.''

He blamed the abuses on Saddam loyalists who he said have infiltrated the Interior Ministry.

``They have succeeded in tarnishing the image of the government. The government is no match for their expertise in psychological war,'' he said.