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Iraq's Interior Minister Says Reports of Prisoner Abuse Exaggerated

Iraq's Shi'ite interior minister has angrily defended his ministry against charges that its security forces secretly detained, abused and tortured nearly 170 Sunni Arab prisoners in a facility in Baghdad.

Denying he had ever condoned the abuse of prisoners, Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr complained Thursday that reports of widespread prisoner abuse at an interior ministry-run detention center in Baghdad has been exaggerated.

Mr. Jabr insisted that only a handful of the nearly 170 detainees found at the facility Sunday showed any evidence of being beaten or physically abused. He said all of the prisoners were dangerous terrorists who had arrest warrants issued against them.

Mr. Jabr pledged to bring those responsible for the abuse to justice and suggested that the problem at the Jadriyah facility was an isolated case.

"If the American forces want to inspect Iraqi prisons, I invite all of the international organizations and I invite all of the Iraqis to contact General Adnan, the leader of the commandos to visit these prisons with your cameras," he said.

Mr. Jabr's comments about the number of men abused run contrary to what VOA witnessed Monday night, when U.S. troops moved the detainees out of the detention center and transferred them to a holding facility at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison to receive medical care.

At least a third of the detainees appeared severely emaciated and many showed cuts and bruises on their faces, arms and legs. One detainee was taken out of the facility on a stretcher because he was unable to walk.

Interior Minister Jabr says that prisoner was a Shi'ite, who suffered from polio. He says the man had been arrested after helping Sunni extremists detonate a roadside bomb. Mr. Jabr's statement could not be independently verified.

The interior minister says reports of the prisoners being mostly Sunni Arabs is false and that Shi'ites were among the detainees. According to American soldiers who found the detainees, only three prisoners identified themselves as Shi'ite Muslims. All of the others said they were Sunni.

Sunni political leaders have demanded an international investigation into allegations that the Badr Brigade, a Shi'ite militia with links to the largest Shi'ite political party in the Iraqi government, is actively working inside the interior ministry. Mr. Jabr is a member of the Shi'ite party, called the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He was also once a high-ranking official in the Badr Brigade.

Sunnis have accused the Badr Brigade militia of forming death squads to torture and kill Sunni Arabs, purely for sectarian reasons.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Jim Bullock, told reporters that for now, the United States is supporting Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's decision to form government-appointed committees to investigate the abuse allegations.

"As the Iraqi prime minister has said, we are working together to make sure that there will be no recurrence of any form of abuse in any detention facilities in Iraq," said Jim Bullock. "We have made clear to the Iraqi government that there must not be militia or sectarian control or direction of Iraqi security forces, facilities, or ministries. The U.S. will assist the Iraqi government in every way to conduct a fair investigation."

Mindful of the damage done to the image of the United States by last year's Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, some U.S. officials are privately expressing hope that the incident could help persuade Sunni Arabs, who make up the core of the country's insurgency, that the United States is committed to treating all Iraqis fairly.