Red Cross reports widespread abuse of Iraqis

USA TODAY
May 11, 2004, Tuesday, FIRST EDITION
BYLINE: Peter Eisler and Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 5A
LENGTH: 826 words

The international Red Cross gave U.S. military officials at least a half-dozen warnings last year that Iraqi prisoners were being abused by American personnel, according to a confidential report the aid organization sent to top U.S. officials in February.

The complaints of mistreatment, filed from April through November 2003, ranged from the use of lethal force in quelling prison riots to beatings and the isolation of naked captives in tiny, dark cells for 23 hours a day. In several cases, the Red Cross filed written concerns to top level U.S. commanders.

Some of the concerns also were noted in talks with unnamed U.S. officials in Washington, according to Red Cross representatives.

The Red Cross report concludes that abuse of Iraqi prisoners was not routine or universal. But the report documents widespread abuse of prisoners who were deemed to be security problems or classified as “high value detainees” — captives who played significant roles in the regime of Saddam Hussein. The mistreatment of those prisoners included physical abuse, sexual humiliation and death threats, the report says. It cites many instances of U.S. soldiers badly injuring prisoners and several in which the Iraqis appear to have died as a result.

The Wall Street Journal obtained the report and posted it online.

Taken together, the report’s findings contradict repeated assertions by White House officials that the misconduct was perpetrated by a small number of military personnel. The report says abuses occurred at several facilities in Iraq. And in some cases, abuse of high-value detainees appeared to be condoned — or encouraged — by military intelligence officers who supervised their detention.

Several of those officers “confirmed to the (Red Cross) that it was part of the military intelligence process to hold (those detainees) naked in a completely dark and empty cell for a prolonged period, (and) to use inhumane and degrading treatment, including physical and psychological coercion . . . to secure their cooperation,” the report says. In some cases, it adds, such treatment “might amount to torture.”

White House and Pentagon spokesmen expressed regret over the findings but declined to comment on specifics or assign responsibility for the abuses. They noted that several investigations into abuse allegations are ongoing. “We will hold people accountable . . . (and) make sure that we put in procedures and policies to make sure that this kind of activity does not happen again,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Red Cross officials also declined to comment on the report. The organization gains access to prisoners of war and other detainees based on a promise to maintain confidentiality in its reports to responsible governments, said Antonella Notari, Red Cross spokeswoman in Geneva. “We never intended to publish this report. It came from another source.”

Red Cross officials also declined to name the U.S. officials they contacted in Iraq to raise concerns about prisoner abuse last year. The February report, which summarized those contacts and laid out more than 20 pages of mistreatment charges, went to Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

The report documented a series of warnings last summer and fall to other U.S. officials. Among them:

* In May 2003, the Red Cross sent a memo listing more than 200 allegations of prisoner mistreatment to a senior military commander at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar. The memo noted that some prisoners bore cuts and bruises consistent with their accounts of abuse. The only improvement noted in the follow-up report in February was an order to stop forcing detainees to wear wristbands labeled “terrorist.”

* In early July 2003, the Red Cross sent a “working paper” to officials in Iraq charging widespread abuse of high value detainees at Camp Cropper, a temporary holding site at Baghdad Airport. Shortly after the delivery of that report, which documented alleged beatings, death threats and other physical and psychological abuse, Camp Cropper was closed.

* In October 2003, Red Cross officials complained that guards at the Camp Bucca detention area near Basra unnecessarily shot and killed a captive who was allegedly throwing stones at U.S. soldiers. U.S. officials said the shooting was justified because non-lethal ammunition had failed to control unrest. But Red Cross witnesses said the victim posed no threat. They cited the incident as one of several in which U.S. forces unnecessarily used lethal force during uprisings.

Many of the Red Cross’ concerns were relayed to commanders of units involved in alleged abuse. But other complaints went to top-level officials in Iraq and Washington. “I’d prefer not to go into details of who we spoke to in Washington,” says Amanda Williamson of the Red Cross’ U.S. office.