red cross sees torture-like abuse in iraq
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by richard waddington
geneva (reuters) - iraqis held by u.s. forces have been subjected to systematic degrading treatment, sometimes close to torture, that may have been officially condoned, the international committee of the red cross said friday.
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breaking with its usual vow of silence, the geneva-based humanitarian agency (icrc) said visits to detention centers in iraq (news - web sites) between march and november 2003 had turned up violations of international treaties on prisoners of war.
"what we have observed are situations from a human point of view that are degrading in treatment and in some incidents tantamount to torture," pierre kraehenbuehl, director of icrc operations, told journalists.
"our findings do not allow us to conclude that what we were dealing with ... were isolated acts of individual members of coalition forces. what we have described is a pattern and a broad system," he said.
the icrc, whose reports on prison visits are confidential, went public with some of its findings after parts of the 24-page document were carried by the wall street journal.
the scandal over detainee abuse broke last week with the release of photographs showing the sexual humiliation of iraqi prisoners in abu ghraib, a u.s.-run jail outside baghdad.
defense secretary donald rumsfeld friday took responsibility for the incidents, which have caused outrage in the middle east, and apologized to the victims, the iraqi people and americans.
beating with pistols
according to the journal, whose report was confirmed as accurate by the icrc, ill-treatment was most common during questioning, when interrogators were seeking information or confessions. examples included:
-- "hooding a detainee with a bag, sometimes in conjunction with beatings thus increasing anxiety as to when blows would come."
-- "handcuffing so tight that they caused skin lesions and nerve damage; beating with pistols and rifles; threats of reprisals against family members; and stripping detainees naked for several days in solitary confinement in a completely dark cell."
kraehenbuehl said that the report referred mainly to the actions of u.s. forces at abu ghraib and elsewhere, but the icrc had also expressed concern in recent months about british-run centers .
"we have made our comments ... and also our recommendations" to the british, he said. but he gave no detail and did not comment on pictures published in a british newspaper, one of which purports to show a soldier urinating on a prisoner.
although the report was presented to the u.s. authorities only in february, its contents were consistent with the oral and written presentations made to prison authorities since the visits first began, kraehenbuehl said.
excerpts of the icrc report in the journal spoke of ill-treatment that "went beyond exceptional cases and might be considered a practice tolerated" by coalition forces. u.s. officials insist military high-ups never condoned abuse.
thursday, the icrc said it had repeatedly urged the united states to take "corrective action" at abu ghraib.
the humanitarian group also said coalition forces fired on unarmed prisoners from watchtowers and killed some, as well as committing "serious violations" of the geneva conventions governing treatment of war prisoners.
the icrc's silence until now has been questioned by some human rights groups, but the humanitarian organization stressed that it could have more impact in trouble spots around the world by keeping quiet in public while pressing the authorities concerned in private.
kraehenbuehl said that the icrc's discussions with u.s. prison authorities in iraq over the past months had led to some improvements but problems remained.