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Iraq Sunnis Demand Probe of Prisoner Abuse Allegations

Iraq's main Sunni political party on Wednesday demanded the launch of an international investigation into charges that officials inside the country's interior ministry are running secret detention centers, where Sunni Arab detainees are routinely starved, tortured, abused and sometimes killed.

The secretary general of the Sunni-based Iraqi Islamic Party told reporters that for several months, his group repeatedly asked Iraq's Shi'ite-led government to investigate detention facilities under the control of the interior ministry, but received no response.

The secretary general, Tariq al-Hashemi, said that the chance discovery of more than 160 badly tortured and abused Sunni prisoners inside a ministry-run jail in Baghdad Sunday confirmed his party's worst fears.

Mr. Hashemi says the horrific conditions of the detainees shows that the people in charge at the interior ministry have neither mercy nor pity for their Iraqi brothers.

He called for the resignation of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr and said that Iraq's most revered and powerful Shi'ite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, should denounce all acts of violence against Sunnis and condemn those who carry them out.

Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has appointed his Kurdish deputy, Rowsch Shaways, to lead an official investigation into the case. On Wednesday, the prime minister announced that another committee has been formed to investigate other prison facilities in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Mr. Jaafari says members of the committee will conduct a survey of all of the prisons in Iraq. He urged the minister of interior to cooperate with the committee.

But highlighting the deep mistrust and tension between Iraq's two main Muslim communities, the spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, Iyad Samarrai, says his group believes an inquiry by Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government will not be transparent nor impartial. Mr. Samarrai says Sunni Arabs would only accept findings by a neutral, international body.

Sunnis strongly suspect that senior members of government, including Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, have deep links with a Shi'ite militia called the Badr Brigade. The Badr Brigade is the unofficial armed wing of Mr. Jabr's powerful political party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Sunni Arabs have long charged that the Badr organization, which was formed in the 1980s in neighboring Iran to fight Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, has infiltrated the interior ministry and has formed death squads to kill Sunni Arabs.

On Wednesday, the head of the Badr organization denied that his group had any ties to interior ministry-run detention centers.

The prisoners at the Baghdad facility were inadvertently discovered Sunday by a small group of U.S. soldiers, searching for a missing Sunni Arab boy.

The soldiers did not find the boy, but they discovered 165 blindfolded, starving, physically abused men crammed inside three small adjoining rooms off of one of the hallways in the facility. Three other men were found locked up in a nearby closet, where they had been held for four months.

Interior ministry officials say all of the men were legally arrested on charges of being terrorists.

The prisoners have since been transferred to another holding facility, where they are receiving medical care while their cases are being reviewed by Iraqi judges.

The American commander of coalition forces in Baghdad, Major General William Webster, says the United States is providing technical assistance to Iraqi investigators and will coordinate with them in inspecting detention facilities if necessary.