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Iraq Launches Probe into Alleged Prisoner Abuse

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Iraq today, a new investigation of prisoner abuse, this time abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of Iraqi guards. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jafari says more than 170 detainees were found in an underground Baghdad center, some of them suffering from malnutrition and physical abuse. US and Iraqi forces surrounded the detention center Sunday night and made the discovery. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Baghdad.

And, Peter, please give us a little more detail on where this discovery was made.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Well, Robert, we were alerted Sunday night that a number of US tanks and armored vehicles had converged on a building in Baghdad's Jadriyah neighborhood. They entered what we're told is the old Ministry of Interior office from the time of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, when the ministry was run by Falah al-Naqib. They moved the ministry later to different quarters. But this building, with some underground detention centers, has remained under the ministry's control. And two Iraqi officials, who didn't want to be named for fear of retribution, said they believe it's unofficially controlled by the Badr Brigade; that's a militia affiliated with SCIRI, the dominant religious Shiite party here. And we're told Iraqi forces entered that building Sunday and were surprised by what they found.

SIEGEL: Now, in effect, a detention center or a prison--let's put it that way--being operated by a militia, by a political movement?

KENYON: That is the allegation, and that's not yet confirmed, but it's a very serious one and something that's being looked into at top levels here. Local US Army commanders who were part of that raid said they had been tipped off--they didn't say by whom--that there were approximately 40 or so prisoners supposed to be in this bunker down there. And when they got there, they found four times that number. And according to some officials, instruments of torture were also found there. The prime minister today said he's been told there are signs of beating and malnutrition.

What we're told by Iraqi officials is that the employees, the guards, there are now being held for questioning; the detainees have been moved for medical treatment. And Prime Minister Jafari says he's appointed two committees, one to look into this incident, to be back in two weeks with their results, and the second to look into all the other detention centers around Iraq to see what's happening with those detainees.

SIEGEL: And once again, while at Abu Ghraib, it was a matter of a US prisoner abuse scandal, this, so far as we know, is an internal Iraqi matter?

KENYON: So far as we know, yes, Iraqi prisoners mistreated allegedly by Iraqi guards. Now some officials are saying part of the problem here is a lack of space, that they're very cramped for quarters, which is true. But clearly the prime minister's suggestion that there was signs of torture suggests more than just overcrowding. By the way, background: Sunni Muslims have complained for a long time that the Shiite-dominated Ministry of Interior has either sanctioned or turned a blind eye to what they call revenge killings against Sunni. The government denies that.

The Americans, who have generally stayed in the background since handing over power, have come out fairly publicly on this, putting out their own statement confirming that the US ambassador and General George Casey have personally taken up the matter with Iraqi officials, a sign they take it very seriously.

SIEGEL: There are parliamentary elections coming up in a month. Is this likely to be an issue in them?

KENYON: It could well. There certainly seems to be a concerted effort by the part of Prime Minister Jafari to get this out there and deal with it and get it over with, which one level will be quite a contrast to the way Iraqis are used to being dealt with by the Saddam Hussein regime. But whether it has negative impact on Sunni participation remains to be seen.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Peter.

That's NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.