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Red Cross: We Saw Iraq Prison Abuse Last Fall

Up to 90 percent of Iraqi detainees were arrested "by mistake," according to coalition intelligence officers cited in a Red Cross report disclosed Monday. It also says U.S. officers mistreated inmates at the notorious Abu Ghraib (search) prison by keeping them naked in dark, empty cells.

Abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers was widespread and routine, the report finds -- contrary to President Bush's contention that the mistreatment "was the wrongdoing of a few."

While many detainees were quickly released, high-ranking officials in Saddam Hussein's (search) government, including those listed on the U.S. military's deck of cards, were held for months in solitary confinement.

Red Cross delegates saw U.S. military intelligence officers mistreating prisoners under interrogation at Abu Ghraib and collected allegations of abuse at more than 10 other detention facilities, including the military intelligence section at Camp Cropper at Baghdad International Airport (search) and the Tikrit (search) holding area, according to the report.

The 24-page document cites abuses -- some "tantamount to torture" -- including brutality, hooding, humiliation and threats of "imminent execution."

"These methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information and other forms of cooperation from persons who had been arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have an 'intelligence value.'"

High-ranking officials were singled out for special treatment, according to the report, which the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed as authentic after it was published by The Wall Street Journal on Monday.

"Since June 2003 over a hundred 'high value detainees' have been held for nearly 23 hours a day in strict solitary confinement in small concrete cells devoid of daylight," says the report. "Their continued internment several months after their arrest in strict solitary confinement constituted a serious violation of the third and fourth Geneva Conventions."

It did not say who the detainees were, but an official who discussed the report with the Red Cross told The Associated Press they include some of the 55 top officials in Saddam's regime named in the deck of cards given to troops.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said detainees held at Baghdad International Airport include many of the 44 "deck of cards" suspects already captured. It was not clear if Saddam was at the airport, but the Red Cross has said it visited him in coalition detention somewhere in Iraq last month.

The high-value detainees were deprived of any contact with other inmates, "guards, family members [except through Red Cross messages] and the rest of the outside world," the report says.

Those whose investigations were near an end were said to be allowed to exercise together outside the cells for 20 minutes twice a day.

The report says some coalition military intelligence officers estimated "between 70 percent and 90 percent" of the detainees in Iraq "had been arrested by mistake. They also attributed the brutality of some arrests to the lack of proper supervision of battle group units."

The agency said arrests tended to follow a pattern.

"Authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property," the report says.

"Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people," it says. "Treatment often included pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles."

It was unclear what the Red Cross meant by "mistake." However, many Iraqis have claimed U.S. forces arrested them because of misunderstandings, bogus claims by personal enemies, mistaken identity or simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

One former detainee who claims he was abused, Haider Sabbar Abed, said he was arrested in July when the driver of the car he was in was unable to produce proper papers at a U.S. checkpoint. He was not released until April 15.

In one operation, U.S. special operations troops detained nearly the entire male population of the village of Habbariyah, ranging in age from 81 to 13, apparently to prevent terrorists from slipping across the border from Saudi Arabia. The 79 men were held for weeks.

Language problems sometimes led to detainees' "being slapped, roughed up, pushed around or pushed to the ground," according to the Red Cross report. "A failure to understand or a misunderstanding of orders given in English was construed by guards as resistance or disobedience."

The report says that in coalition prisons "ICRC delegates directly witnessed and documented a variety of methods used to secure the cooperation" of the inmates "with their interrogators." The delegates saw detainees kept "completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness."

"Upon witnessing such cases, the ICRC interrupted its visits and requested an explanation from the authorities," the report says. "The military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was 'part of the process."'

This apparently meant detainees were progressively given clothing, bedding, lighting and other items in exchange for cooperation, it says.

The report says the Red Cross found evidence supporting prisoners' allegations of other forms of abuse during arrest, initial detention and interrogation -- including burns, bruises and other injuries.

Once detainees were moved to regular prison facilities, the abuses typically stopped, it says.

The report also cites widespread abuse of power and ill-treatment by Iraqi law enforcement officers under the coalition, including extorting money from people in their custody by threatening to hand them over to coalition authorities. Under the Geneva Conventions, the coalition is responsible for the Iraqi officers' behavior, the report says.

The Red Cross has emphasized that the report was only a summary of its repeated attempts in person and in writing from March to November 2003 to get U.S. officials to stop abuses. Those earlier interventions by the Red Cross far preceded the Pentagon's decision to investigate after a low-ranking U.S. soldier stepped forward in January.

The Geneva-based organization gave its report to coalition forces in February. The prisoner abuse erupted into an international scandal in recent days after the publication of disturbing photographs from Abu Ghraib.

The Red Cross said it wanted to keep the report confidential because it saw U.S. officials making progress in responding to their complaints. Still, the American reaction was far slower than that of British officials, according to the report.

It says the Red Cross informed the commander of British forces in April 2003 of "ill-treatment" by military intelligence personnel in interrogating Iraqis at Umm Qasr in southern Iraq. "This intervention had the immediate effect to stop the systematic use of hoods and flexi-cuffs in the interrogation section of Umm Qasr."