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U.S. Military Held Iraqis ‘Hostage,â€TM New Documents Reveal

Files Also Show Commanders Authorized Brutal Treatment of Inmates

by Chris Shumway
Lisa Ashkenaz Croke contributed to this piece.

Evidence suggesting systemic abuse and torture at US-run prisons throughout Iraq continues to mount as Army documents surface. The latest records suggest hostage-holding and beatings were approved policy.

Apr. 22, 2005 – Newly released government documents reveal that US military personnel arrested and detained Iraqi civilians in an attempt to pressure relatives suspected of involvement in the insurgency to turn themselves in. Other documents released Monday by the Department of Defense in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request suggest that senior Army commanders encouraged interrogators to torture Iraqi detainees who had not yet been "broken" during questioning.

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"These documents provide further evidence that the chain of command in Iraq approved and even encouraged the abuse of detainees held in US custody," said attorney Amrit Singh in a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union announcing the release of the documents.

One document in particular contained references to both the detention of suspects’ relatives and the use of torture by US interrogators. In a November 2003 rebuttal to charges that he improperly supervised interrogators at a facility in Tikrit, an Army staff sergeant wrote, "Personnel at the ICE [Interrogation Control Element] regularly see detainees who are, in essence, hostages."

The sergeant, whose name was redacted from the released documents by military censors, explained that the detainees "are normally arrested by Coalition Forces because they are family of individuals who have been targeted" by US forces. He added that many such detainees have been transferred to Abu Ghraib prison where they "become lost in the Coalition detention system" regardless of whether their targeted relative "surrenders himself."

"Senior leaders," according to the sergeant’s statement, reported to other soldiers that they had taken family members of suspected insurgents into custody, with the "tacit approval" of military commanders.

On numerous occasions, Iraqis have accused US troops of arresting women to pressure wanted male relatives into surrendering themselves. According to Amnesty International, such arrests are a breach of international law. US military officials have maintained that occupation forces hold only those suspected of crimes or involvement in insurgent attacks.

Last month, Arkan Mukhlif Al-Batawi, an Iraqi farmer, said US troops took his mother and sister hostage after raiding the family’s home near Baghdad. Al-Batawi told Reuters that the women had been arrested in an attempt by the US to pressure him and two of his brothers to surrender themselves to US troops.

Several of Al-Batawi’s neighbors corroborated his version of the raid, and a handwritten note in Arabic posted at Batawi’s house after the raid said: "Be a man Muhammad Mukhlif and give yourself up and then we will release your sisters. Otherwise they will spend a long time in detention." Muhammad is one of Al-Batawi’s brothers.

After the story broke in the media, US forces released Al-Batawi’s mother and sister, having held them for five days.

The Army staff sergeant in the newly released documents suggested in a written rebuttal that senior commanders had, by approving the taking of hostages and making statements suggesting detainees should not be granted rights as enemy prisoners of war, created a climate in which the torture of detainees was encouraged.

In the case for which he issued the rebuttal, an interrogator under the sergeant’s supervision reportedly beat an Iraqi detainee with a three-foot long "riot baton" on the backs of the feet and the buttocks while he was in a stress position. The staff sergeant argued, "it seems clear that, considering the seeming approval of these and other such tactics by the senior command, it is a short jump of the imagination that allows actions such as those committed by [the interrogator, name redacted] to become not only tolerated but encouraged."

An Army investigation into the beating of the detainee found that an American officer had solicited "wish lists" of permissible interrogation tactics from US troops working at Abu Ghraib. The ACLU also obtained and released to the public the results of that investigation. In August 2003 -- one month before the beating described by the sergeant -- a Baghdad headquarters officer, Captain William Ponce, sent an email to interrogators in Iraq. In that message, he asked interrogation staff what techniques they thought would be more effective at "breaking" Iraqi detainees. "The gloves are coming off," Ponce wrote, "we want these individuals broken."

The email was forwarded to interrogators throughout Iraq, including those at the Staff Sergeant’s facility and others stationed at Abu Ghraib prison. Reponses to Ponce’s solicitation included a message arguing that, unlike America’s enemies during the Cold War, "today’s enemy" only understands "force, not psychological mind games or incentives."

Another response included a document titled, "Alternative Interrogation Techniques," which listed the use of open-hand strikes to the face and midsection and pressure point manipulation to cause "acute temporary pain." The list also included several "coercive" techniques such as "closed-fist strikes," hitting detainees with phone books, low-voltage electrical torture and the use of stress positions to induce muscle fatigue.

The investigation, conducted in the fall of 2003, directly tied Ponce’s e-mail, and the subsequent discussions about it, to the beating of the detainee with the riot baton. In sworn statements, the interrogator who administered the beating said he had discussed the email with a supervisor who had compiled the list of alternative techniques. Other soldiers at the facility testified that the interrogator said he had authorization to "soup up" interrogations, using more forceful techniques.

Documents also revealed that just six days after Ponce disseminated his memo, another US soldier punched a detainee numerous times with a "closed fist." He also pointed a loaded weapon at the detainee and threatened to kill him.

"The record before us establishes beyond any doubt that US forces abandoned moral and legal principles enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and the Army’s own field manuals governing the treatment of detainees," the ACLU’s Singh observed.

Other documents released Monday by the government included a report investigating the mock execution of a teenage Iraqi boy conducted by US soldiers in front of the boy’s father. Another report included a medic’s detailed description of two Iraqis who were severely beaten by US soldiers. That account is contrasted with a statement by an Army captain who reported those same Iraqis were only "roughed up a bit."

Autopsy results providing graphic details about the deaths of detainees ruled to be homicides were also released to the ACLU. One involved a 56-year-old Iraqi detainee who died from "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression" after interrogators reportedly stuffed him into a sleeping bag and sat on his chest. Another autopsy described the death of a 47-year-old detainee who died from "blunt force injuries and asphyxia" after being "shackled to the top of a doorframe with a gag in his mouth."

The ACLU has now accumulated over 30,000 government documents as a result of its FOIA request, which is enforced by a court order obtained after the government initially refused to comply. Based on many of those obtained previously, the ACLU, along with Human Rights First, filed a lawsuit last month seeking to hold Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others senior officials accountable for the abuse of detainees.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Chris Shumway is a contributing journalist.

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