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Dirty Truths About Iraq
"... security in Iraq may not be sustainable unless significant steps are taken to uphold the rule of law and human rights ..." - Human Rights Report of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq

Dirty Truths About Iraq

"... security in Iraq may not be sustainable unless significant steps are taken to uphold the rule of law and human rights ..." - Human Rights Report of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq

“… security in Iraq may not be sustainable unless significant steps are taken to uphold the rule of law and human rights …”

– Human Rights Report of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, released December 14, 2009.

It’s probably safe to say that most Americans think the US military involvement in Iraq is coming to an end this year – that the Iraq War is effectively over.

There are, however, some very nasty facts having to do with detention, torture and execution that must be considered in judging what will be happening this year for Iraqis and US soldiers.

Detentions Increasing

The UN report quoted above says that the Iraqi government was holding about 30,000 detainees at the end of June 2009 (not counting about 2,800 held in prisons in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan), and there are indications that the number of Iraqis imprisoned may have risen significantly since then. As will be discussed below, the UN statistics could be a very low estimate of those jailed.

A glimpse of the realities of the current detention situation came in a December 23, 2009, US Department of Defense “Bloggers Roundtable” interview with Marine Colonel Darrell Halse. Colonel Halse described his job as working with Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior (MOI) to see “that a culture of rule of law is established and that MOI leaders become stakeholders in this new culture.”

The MOI runs Iraq’s national police and its border guards and is assigned to protect government buildings; it has some 500,000 employees under arms, about three times the number in the Iraqi military. The MOI has been notorious for being divided by politics and religion, with different segments operating on their own initiative and often perpetrating wholesale human rights abuses.

Colonel Halse said the primary problem he witnesses within the MOI is overcrowding in the system of 1,000 jails the ministry runs across the country, which now hold about 18,000 Iraqis. He said about 15,000 were being held in MOI jails at midyear, meaning there has been an increase of 3,000, or 20 percent, in six months.

It is worth noting that Colonel Halse’s figure on detainees held in MOI jails in June 2009 is 6,000 higher than the 9,035 cited in the UN report. If this factor were applied to the overall UN figures for detainees in the custody of the Iraqi government, the total number of imprisoned Iraqis would total about 50,000.

Some of the population increase in MOI jails, as well as in other Iraqi government prisons, results from the transfer of Iraqis from US prisons operated by Task Force 134 (TF-134) into Iraqi custody under the Status of Force agreement signed in 2008. During 2009, according to a TF-134 spokesperson, about 7,800 Iraqis were released because there was insufficient evidence for charges, and about 1,500 were transferred to Iraqi jails and prisons. (The spokesperson said that those released “signed a pledge to uphold the law-abiding government of Iraq” and had “guarantors, which means that an elder in their community guaranteed that they would watch over the released detainee and ensure that they would help keep the released detainee out of trouble.”)

The US still holds about 6,000 Iraqis, most of whom, the spokesperson said, have Iraqi arrest warrants or detention orders against them and “will be transferred into Government of Iraq custody as space becomes available in GOI facilities and when requested by the GOI.”

The increase in detainees in the MOI jails, and likely in other Iraqi jails, appears to result from arrests of resistance fighters and those viewed as political threats. Political arrests have been reported in advance of the parliamentary elections planned in March, which are intended to be the next step in forming a legitimate, unified Iraqi government. For example, an October 2009 report from the Congressional Research Service said:

“While he (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri el-Maliki) has reached compromise with political competitors in various provinces, he has reportedly been using the security forces to politically intimidate his opponents. One politician in Diyala Province, for example, was arrested in May 2009 on orders from Maliki. He has also ordered the ISF (Iraq Security Force) to arrest numerous political opponents in southern Iraq…. Other reports say he has ordered some newspapers owned by critics closed, and is backing legislation that would increase government censorship of the media.”

An October 2009 United Press International (UPI) report said that Prime Minister Maliki “has been systematically amassing control of Iraq’s intelligence and security services” by removing suspected opponents from intelligence, security and other government posts and through arrests inside and outside government. The article said the prime minister “has also formed two paramilitary forces, the Baghdad Brigade – also known as ‘the Dirty Squad’ for its nocturnal sweeps arresting Maliki’s critics – and the Counter-Terrorism Force. Both report directly to him.”

It is also possible that, given the reported factionalism within various Iraqi ministries, political arrests are being made on behalf of any number of politicians.

Lack of Due Process

Those caught in the MOI jails, as well as other Iraqi prisons, can find themselves with no way to bring their case to court and public attention. This has been a long-standing problem in Iraq, as noted in – [Link to] “Obama Faced with Iraq Detainee Human Rights Debacle, December 3, 2008.”

The UNAMI report said: “The UN remains particularly concerned that during the reporting period (January through June 2009) it continued to receive reports of prolonged periods of detention without charge, access to judicial review or to legal counsel and the use of torture or physical abuse against detainees to extract confessions. In a number of detention facilities, many detainees have complained of being physically abused by security forces.”

The issue of legal process was touched on by Colonel Halse when he was asked what should be done about overcrowding. He said the answer is to build more jails or “have additional inspecting judges assigned or court systems to speed the detainees that are there through the system.” Asked how long an average detainee stays in the MOI jails before either being released or sent to prisons run by the Ministry of Justice, which now hold another 17,000, Colonel Halse said:

“Within the MOI, I can’t tell you how long an average detainee stays there. I can tell you that by Iraqi law they have to be in front of a court within six months or they are to be released…. Now the Catch-22 to that is, if the investigative judge is not done with his investigation, he can sign an order to extend that length of stay.”

With respect to conditions within MOI jails, Colonel Halse said:

“As you can imagine, with overcrowding being the number one issue, cleanliness will follow right behind that. Medical care: It is hit or miss. Some facilities have excellent health care. Other facilities are not so good. They all have some medical care. The quality varies greatly from one facility to another.”

The UNAMI report includes in its recommendations to the Iraqi government:

“Increase efforts to alleviate overcrowding in prisons and detention facilities and improve sanitation and hygiene conditions; in particular, institute urgent measures to examine conditions at all detention facilities in respect of transmittable diseases, mental health of detainees and lack of rehabilitation programmes.”


As indicated above, torture continues to be a feature of Iraqi jails and prisons. It is extremely difficult to know to what degree the incidences of torture and abuse stem from government policy as opposed to independently operating individuals or regional, political and religious factions engaged in power struggles.

Colonel Halse said, in answer to an email question, that “the number of reports of abuse vary greatly from one detention facility to another. The inspectors from the Human Rights office (of the inspector general of the MOI) take all accusations seriously.” He reported that the Human Rights office “referred 64 cases of alleged torture and mistreatment for further investigation in 2009. Of the 64 cases, 22 investigations were opened based on credible evidence. Of the 22 cases, eight (8) high-ranking MOI officers (major through general) are currently being detained and awaiting trial on charges of misconduct.”

He said he does not know if the numbers of alleged cases of torture and misconduct have risen or fallen since his arrival in Baghdad in April 2009.

While the colonel’s report of prosecutions is encouraging, it is unclear whether these investigations and prosecutions have been selective, based on political goals, and therefore to what degree torture overall is being addressed.


Although there has been little US press attention on executions in Iraq, the UNAMI report indicates an extremely disturbing up-tick in the imposition of the death penalty and executions that seems to have kicked off in 2009 after an execution hiatus that started in August 2007. This may be related to the transfer of prisoners from US custody to Iraqi custody.

The report says that between January 1 and May 31, 2009, Iraqi courts, excluding those in Kurdistan, ordered 324 death sentences, 60 percent issued under the Iraqi Anti-Terrorism Law. It said further that 150 of those sentenced to death had exhausted all appeal and 100 execution orders “may have been signed….”

On May 3, 2009, 12 people were hanged, and on June 10 another 19 were hanged, one of them a woman, according to the report, which calls on Iraq to impose a moratorium on executions, noting that “the Iraqi criminal justice system does not provide sufficient fair trial guarantees.”

“The secrecy surrounding the executions remained an additional issue of concern,” UNAMI said. “Iraqi ministries remained largely unresponsive to UNAMI’s and OHCHR’s (the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) call for information regarding the executions and the death penalty cases.”

The UNAMI report said that “many persons are convicted on the basis of confessions often gathered under duress or torture, while their right not to be compelled to testify against oneself or confess guilt is often violated.”

In December 2009, Amnesty International (AI) issued a statement saying that overall there are now 900 Iraqis, including 17 women, on death row, a total that includes people sentenced in previous years. “Iraqi media reports suggest,” AI said, “that the Iraqi government is currently trying to present itself as ‘tough’ on crime ahead of national elections (scheduled for March 2010).”

The statement continued:

“Iraq is now one of the world’s heaviest users of the death penalty. After the US-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority suspended the death penalty following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003, Iraq’s subsequent reintroduction of capital punishment led to a rapid acceleration in death sentences and executions. Despite this, and contrary to some claims made by the Iraqi authorities, use of the death penalty has not seen a drop in crime levels in the country, with rises and falls in insurgency violence having no discernible relation to execution rates.”

In September 2009, France 24 news web site quoted AI’s Middle East spokesperson Nicole Choueiry saying that there might be more than 1,000 Iraqis on death row. “The real figure is probably much higher because authorities have been releasing less and less information over the past 18 months.”

France 24 cited an Agence France Presse report quoting a police officer at Al-Adalah prison that “10 to 15 executions are carried out every seven or eight days, the majority of them terrorists.”

France 24 also quoted an Iraqi legal expert who said politics can determine who goes on death row:

“The ministry of justice sends a note on death penalty convictions to the Council of Ministers, who may approve or not approve of it; depending on the identity of the accused, they may strike people off the list.”

Judging from the UNAMI report, the abuses outlined above exist also in Kurdistan. The report also addresses human rights concerns with respect to women, children, gays and minorities in Iraq and Kurdistan.

“On track …”

On January 2, 2010, General Raymond Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, told the Associated Press (AP) that the US will cut its number of soldiers in Iraq from the current level of 110,000 to 100,000 in March 2010 when the parliamentary elections are scheduled.

“This is in my opinion the most important election that has been held to date in Iraq,” the general told the AP. “We want to come down in such a way that it is deliberate, and in such a way that the Iraqis are gaining confidence in themselves to provide their own security.”

The report went on to say General Odierno will look to see “whether there is a significant increase in violence after the election or major problems seating a new government when he makes his decision about whether to continue the drawdown as scheduled.” The AP said further:

“However, he (Odierno) did say he did not expect the Iraqi government to actually be seated by May. No single party or political bloc is expected to gain an outright majority in the March vote, so there will likely be a prolonged period of negotiation to determine who will become prime minister and who will hold positions in the Cabinet.

“The plan that I put together originally gave me plenty of flexibility,” the general said, “and part of that flexibility was that the election would be delayed, so I built flexibility into our plan. I feel comfortable that we’re on track.”

The plan calls for a draw-down of 50,000 soldiers between March and August of 2010, leaving 50,000 who are to be designated as trainers for the Iraqi military. All US military forces are supposed to be gone by the end of 2011.

Dark Calculation

One thing that could derail the US withdrawal plans would be massive bombings in Baghdad and around Iraq such as those in 2009. In view of the size and coordination of the bombings in the 2009 campaign, it appears likely that resistance fighters and other political operators have sufficient support among the public, and possibly elements of the government, to achieve a sustained bombing campaign in 2010 as well as continued assassinations of political and military officials.

Resistance or other forces also appear to have the capability of continuing to attack Iraq’s oil pipelines, as happened on December 19, 2009, to a line running from the city of Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, shutting it down for several weeks.

If Prime Minister Maliki and his allies pursue a detention and execution campaign against the resistance movement and his opponents, as now appears to be the case, they are weighing how much public support they are gaining by reducing violence versus how much violence they may engender among the circles of friends and family of those imprisoned, killed and condemned to death. Repression can keep regimes in power, but it involves a dangerous, bloody calculus that can backfire.

The Fate of the US

The US has made efforts, such as the work of Colonel Halse, to assist Iraqis who want to reform the MOI and other Iraqi agencies. But the US has not effectively addressed with the Iraqi government, which depends on the US for its survival, the fundamental issues raised in the UNAMI report.

The detention, torture and execution of Iraqis apparently are not worrisome to Washington planners. This calculation is as dangerous for the US as it is for Prime Minister Maliki because it may be a major contributor to a situation in which US troops again patrol the streets of Iraq’s cities and towns. Increased violence in Iraq may also contribute to a rise in oil prices, as it did in 2007.

The choice facing Maliki and President Barack Obama is similar to the one described in “Political Instability in Egypt,” an analysis by Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action, published in August 2009:

“The Egyptian regime has thus far ensured stability through coercion. But blunt force is the least efficient means of political control. Overwhelming evidence indicates that the vast majority of Egyptians want to live in a more open and democratic society. Although transitions to more open political systems can be fraught, the establishment of rule of law, transparency, rotation of power and respect for human rights will likely better ensure stability than the baton of the security apparatus.”

Progress down a path toward an early peace in Iraq would include these first steps, identified in the UNAMI report:

* Opening all jails and prisons in Iraq to inspection by UN officials and local and international human rights organizations.

* Providing all prisoners with legal due process as described under international law.

* An indefinite moratorium on executions.

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