BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraq”s Shiite interior minister accused critics Thursday of exaggerating reports of torture at a lockup seized by U.S. troops last weekend, saying inmates included both Shiites and Sunnis and only a handful showed signs of abuse.
The minister, Bayn Jabr, suggested some critics were supporting the insurgency and trying to use the American embassy to pressure him for personal gain. Detainees held at the Interior Ministry facility in the capital”s Jadriyah district included "dangerous terrorists," including one man accused of building six car bombs.
A disabled prisoner held there was a Shiite hired by "Takfiris," or Sunni religious extremists, to detonate a roadside bomb, he said.
Jabr appeared with senior commanders in an effort to defuse a crisis which welled Tuesday after Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, under pressure from the Americans, announced that 173 detainees had been found by American soldiers at the Jadriyah facility. Some appeared malnourished and showed signs of torture, he said.
Most of the detainees were believed to be Sunni Arabs, prompting Sunni politicians to demand an international investigation. Sunni leaders, who have long complained of sectarian abuse by Shiite-led security forces, accused the government of trying to intimidate them from voting in the Dec. 15 parliamentary election.
Shiites and Kurds dominate the government”s security services, while most of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs. Jabr said only seven detainees showed signs of abuse "and the people behind the beatings will be punished according to the law." He also said the group included Shiites as well as Sunnis, although he gave no breakdown.
"I reject torture and I will punish those who perform torture," Jabr said. "No one was beheaded, no one was killed."
Earlier Thursday, Jabr”s deputy, Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, acknowledged that some prisoners "were subjected to ill-treatment at the hands of the investigators" and called for a unified command to oversee detention centers now run by various arms of the security services.
On Wednesday, Sunni leader Adnan al-Dulaimi said he had complained to the government about abuses at three Interior Ministry compounds. He and several other Sunni politicians demanded an international inquiry.
But Jabr said one of his Sunni critics had urged the U.S. Embassy to pressure his ministry into issuing a license to operate a lucrative security company. Jabr said nearly a third of the company”s staff were former members of Saddam Hussein”s party.
"Whenever there are differences between us, he exerts pressure on me through the U.S. Embassy," Jabr said. He said "those who are supporting terrorism are making the exaggerations" about torture by the Interior Ministry.
"They have described the Interior Minster”s office as a place of execution place," Jabr said. "Let him come to show me if there is an execution place in this shelter."
The Sunni call for an international investigation drew support from Manfred Nowak, a special U.N. investigator on torture.
"That torture is still practiced in Iraq after Saddam Hussein, that is no secret," Nowak told The Associated Press. "It is shocking, but on the other hand, we have received allegations of these secret (detention) places in Iraq already for quite a long time."
Some ordinary Sunnis saw the hand of Shiite-dominated Iran, which offered sanctuary to many Iraqi Shiites during Saddam Hussein”s Sunni-led regime.
"Some government officials want to keep the Sunnis away from the next elections by terrorizing us," Saad Farhan, a Sunni merchant in Ramadi, said, adding his brother and cousin had been held in Jadriyah. "We believe that Iran”s agents are behind it because normal and genuine Iraqis never do this."
Raad al-Dulaimi, a farmer near Ramadi, said security services were dominated by "pro-Iranian elements" bent on "settling old sectarian scores with the Sunnis."
Elsewhere, five U.S. Marines were killed in fighting with al-Qaeda-led insurgents near the Syrian border and an Army soldier died of wounds suffered in Baghdad, making it the second deadliest day for American forces in Iraq this month.
The soldier, from the Army”s Task Force Baghdad, died Wednesday of wounds suffered the day before when a roadside bomb exploded northwest of the capital, the U.S. command said. Three other soldiers were killed Tuesday in a roadside bombing in the same area. But it was unclear if the soldier who died Wednesday was injured in the same attack.
The six deaths made Wednesday the deadliest day for American forces in Iraq since Nov. 2, when seven service members died in four separate attacks. At least 51 U.S. service members have already died in Iraq this month.
For the Marines, it was the worst single-day loss since they launched an offensive Nov. 5 to push al-Qaeda-led insurgents from a series of towns along the Euphrates River used by foreign fighters to slip into the country from Syria.
A Marine statement did not give any details of the Wednesday losses, and names of the victims were withheld pending notification of their families. They were assigned to Regimental Combat Team 2 of the 2nd Marine Division.
U.S. officials say the offensive near the Syrian border is aimed in part at encouraging Sunni Arabs to vote in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections without fear of insurgent reprisals. The Bush administration hopes a successful election will encourage many in the Sunni community to abandon the insurgency.