Non-Iraqi captives singled out for harsh treatment, records say

July 6, 2004, Tuesday, FINAL EDITION
BYLINE: Peter Eisler
LENGTH: 790 words

Late last year, U.S. officers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison sought approval to use extreme interrogation tactics on a captive said to have information that “could potentially save countless lives of American soldiers.” The captive wasn’t an Iraqi general or an al-Qaeda leader. He was a Syrian implicated in a bombing attempt against U.S. troops.

“Detainee can provide information related to safe houses, facilitators, financing, recruitment and operations of foreign fighter smuggling into Iraq,” the top military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, Col. Thomas Pappas, wrote in a secret memo that sought to exempt the captive from normal interrogation rules.

The memo, obtained by USA TODAY, went to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. It laid out a plan to “fear up” the Syrian by throwing tables and chairs, yelling at him and interrogating him “continuously” for 72 hours. During that time, he would be stripped, hooded, bound in “stress positions” and permitted only brief intervals of sleep.

Sanchez testified to Congress in May that he never saw the request. But that may not have mattered: The Syrian, identified as Juwad Ali Khalif, 31, is among several non-Iraqi nationals who were allegedly beaten and sexually abused by U.S. soldiers at the prison, according to statements to investigators in a report on Abu Ghraib by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba.

The Pentagon’s investigation of the abuses at the prison documented repeated instances in which suspected foreign fighters were singled out for harsh treatment, according to classified documents from the inquiry. The records show that interrogators and guards at the prison felt extra pressure to get information from the foreigners.

Top U.S. officials believed at the time that foreign fighters posed a substantial threat in Iraq and were heavily involved in the deadly insurgency that continues to grip that country. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda lieutenants were calling publicly for Muslims across the Arab world to come and wage jihad, or holy war, against Americans in Iraq. And captured associates of Saddam Hussein were telling U.S. interrogators that the former Iraqi president’s loyalists were recruiting foreign fighters to resist the U.S. occupation.

“There’s clearly an indication that foreign terrorists are involved in the kind of violence that we see” in the insurgency, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said in a briefing last August, echoing a view expressed by many Defense officials. “And we’re going to use all the means at our disposal, all of the national means of power, to counter foreign terrorists.”

In recent months, however, it has become clear that the insurgents are overwhelmingly Iraqis. Foreign nationals account for fewer than 100 of the 5,700 prisoners being held by coalition forces in Iraq as security concerns, according to figures supplied by the military.

The military’s suspicions about non-Iraqi fighters through the latter half of 2003 and early this year had an effect on the way foreign captives were tracked and treated. This was especially true of Syrians, who have accounted for more than half the foreigners detained in Iraq.

At Abu Ghraib, suspected foreign fighters typically were deemed to be of “high intelligence value” and placed in isolation in the “hard site” section of the prison, according to sworn statements given to military investigators by Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, a top military intelligence officer at the prison. That area was where virtually all the prisoner abuses are said to have occurred. A special “foreign fighter cell” of interrogators and intelligence analysts was devoted to questioning the non-Iraqis. Khalif was beaten repeatedly and handcuffed in stressful positions for hours by military police guards working nights at the hard site, according to sworn witness statements collected by military investigators. He also was stripped, hosed with cold water on consecutive nights and forced to sleep nude on the wet concrete floor of his cell, witnesses said.

Another Syrian, identified as Ameen Sa’eed al-Sheikh, was accused of trying to shoot prison guards with a smuggled pistol. He testified that guards urinated on him and hung him by his arms with a dislocated shoulder until he passed out. They also menaced him with dogs and threatened to rape him, according to his account, parts of which were supported by witnesses.

Some guards told military investigators that interrogators from military intelligence would tell them to make life uncomfortable for particular prisoners. It is unclear from the Army’s investigative reports whether such instructions were given specifically for foreign captives.

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