Iraq's Premier Orders Probe Into Torture Claims

Iraq's prime minister has ordered an investigation into allegations of torture of Iraqis by Iraqi troops at a Baghdad prison. Madeleine Brand speaks with New York Times correspondent Edward Wong.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, some heated words. The Bush administration and the Democrats trade accusations over the war in Iraq.

But first, we go to Iraq, where the country's interior minister said that allegations of torture at a secret underground prison are exaggerated. American troops discovered many prisoners who appeared to be malnourished and badly beaten by Iraqi Shiite authorities. Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari says there's evidence of torture and he's ordered an investigation. With us now is New York Times correspondent Edward Wong, and he joins us from Baghdad.

And, Edward, first of all, it appears there are conflicting views of this within the Iraqi government. What's going on?

Mr. EDWARD WONG (The New York Times): Today, we heard from the interior minister, Bayan Jabr, who basically tried to downplay this incident, saying that there was no widespread torture at the prison. And what we're hearing from the prime minister's office, is that office wants to start a widespread inquiry into all the prisons in Iraq. So basically, they're taking this very seriously.

BRAND: Now you and your paper spoke with people who said that they were held there and tortured. What did they tell you?

Mr. WONG: That's right. We spoke with one person, a man in his 40s, who was picked up from the city of Fallujah and brought here to Baghdad, and he was put into this prison in Jadiriyah for more than three months. He told us that during the entire time, he was blindfolded and that all the other prisoners had blindfolds on. He said that they were beaten with various instruments such as clubs or sticks, they were whipped and that they were also given electric shock with cables that were attached to their bodies.

BRAND: Most of the detainees there were believed to be Sunni Arabs, and Sunni politicians are demanding an international investigation, basically saying they can't trust an investigation run by the Shiites. Are they claiming these prisoners were detained and then tortured for political reasons?

Mr. WONG: Basically, since the Shiites and the Kurds have assumed power in the government, there have been reports by Sunni Arabs of commando groups, death squads that are sponsored by the government going through Sunni neighborhoods, picking up people and then those people disappearing, some never coming back. What the Sunnis are saying is that this discovery of this prison by the Americans shows that has been occurring. It's confirmation for them that there is discrimination against Sunni Arabs by the Shiites and that Sunni Arabs aren't being treated according to international standards of human rights by the Shiite-run government.

BRAND: And where are the Americans on this? Did they not know this was going on or where they surprised?

Mr. WONG: The Americans say they were surprised. They raided the prison starting first Sunday night and they were surprised to find so many detainees. They had gone there searching for a 15-year-old boy who was missing and who remains missing. And what they found was 169 detainees, most of them malnourished, showing signs of physical abuse or torture and almost all of them Sunni Arabs. And this completely caught the Americans by surprise. And I think one of the interesting things we're seeing here is that the Americans are coming out very strongly and very publicly denouncing this type of torture and I think it's winning them some political points with the Sunnis.

But it's also showing, both to the Americans and to the Iraqis, that Americans are still a force here and that they run many aspects of the government, even though they think that the Iraqis are in charge of the government.

BRAND: Ed Wong is a Baghdad correspondent for The New York Times. He joined us from Baghdad.

Thank you very much.

Mr. WONG: Great. Thanks a lot, Madeleine.

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