A confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross says its officials saw U.S. troops in Iraq mistreat prisoners under interrogation and warned the Bush administration earlier this year that such abuse was widespread. U.S. military officials say they began an investigation into prisoner abuse in January. The Red Cross has confirmed that the leaked report, which appeared on the website of The Wall Street Journal newspaper, is authentic.
The 24-page report, based on inspections and interviews conducted by Red Cross officials at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities last year, was submitted to the U.S. government in February.
It notes that mistreatment of prisoners in the custody of U.S. military intelligence in Iraq was part of a pattern and not the result of individual acts. It says that, in some cases, such abuse was "tantamount to torture." But it clarifies that systematic ill-treatment under interrogation was limited to detainees suspected of security offenses or those deemed to have an intelligence value.
President Bush has said the mistreatment was the wrongdoing of a few soldiers, but the Red Cross report says its officials witnessed and documented a variety of methods used by interrogators to secure the cooperation of the prisoners.
The report says one practice used by guards at Abu Ghraib was to keep prisoners naked in empty cells and in total darkness. The report quotes the military intelligence officer in charge of interrogating prisoners there as saying that this practice was "part of the process."
The Red Cross report says prisoners were subjected to harsh treatment as part of an effort by intelligence officers to obtain confessions and extract information from them. It says Red Cross officials found evidence supporting prisoners' allegations of abuse, such as burns, bruises and other injuries.
The report also alleges that British troops in the southern Iraqi city of Basra beat one prisoner to death and documents eight instances in which unnamed coalition forces opened fire - in some cases, from watchtowers - on unarmed prisoners who were rioting or trying to escape, killing seven of them. It says the coalition determined, after investigating those incidents, that its soldiers had acted properly.
Two-months after the last Red Cross visit detailed in the report, pictures were taken of U.S. troops abusing prisoners. Those pictures appeared in news media late last month, causing international outrage and prompting apologies by President Bush and other top U.S. officials. Criminal charges have now been filed against seven U.S. soldiers.