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Iraqis in U.S. prison camps complain of unfair, harsh treatment

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi citizens who have been detained by coalition forces are complaining bitterly about their treatment in American-run prisons.

U.S. officials say they are moving swiftly to provide better facilities for the scores of people who have been swept up in raids and accused of attacks on U.S.-led forces or other crimes. Looters tore up prisons and jails, so officials have had to rebuild and use temporary ones in the meantime.

Qais Mohammed al Saliman, 54, is an Iraqi engineer who returned to Baghdad in early May after having lived in Denmark since 1990. On May 6, he was arrested when the car he was in was stopped on a popular street along the Tigris River. He said was never told what he was being arrested for.

"They treated me badly. It was very hot, and they put me on the ground with a heavy shoe on my back," he said. "Then a TV truck came, and they pretended to arrest me again for the media."

Al Saliman was taken to "Camp Cropper," a detention facility at the Baghdad International Airport. Because the U.S. military also is using the airport as a base, requests from journalists to visit the facilities have been denied due to security concerns.

"They asked me about Saddam Hussein and I said that he was in hell," said al Saliman, who speaks English well. "I showed them my Danish passport but it didn't make a difference."

Al Saliman was held 33 days, and had no way of letting his elderly mother know where he was. He says he lived with about 130 other men in a tent that was surrounded by wire. When he was released, he said, he was told that they were sorry for holding him.

"They were not human conditions. It was very dirty and there were dust storms. There was no chance to wash before praying. There was only a hole for a toilet, in front of over 100 people," he said. "We Iraqis are people who have high culture. We are educated. I told one of the guards: You may be a cowboy, but we are not Indians. The Americans came here talking about cooperation, and I was treated like an animal in a zoo in my own country."

Coalition officials admit that conditions at Camp Cropper aren't optimal, in large part because of the scorching summer heat. They plan to close the camp as soon as another facility is available.

But they say the coalition is meeting its international obligations. The International Committee of the Red Cross has had access to the facilities. And they say prison conditions—as well as human rights in general—were so appalling under Saddam that rebuilding adequate detention facilities and a public defender system will take time.

"People are not having their tongues cut out anymore," said L. Paul Bremer, the top American administrator in Iraq. "People are not having their children shot in front of them."

Mohammed A'Laa, who befriended al Saliman in prison, was arrested May 21 because his small pistol was found in his car when he went through a checkpoint. He asked if a passing taxi driver could pass the word of his arrest to his wife, but the American soldiers refused.

"They tied my hands behind my back, and I spent the whole night standing on my feet," he said. "They said bad words to us that they thought we didn't understand, but one of the men with me translated. They kept asking me questions: Do you know officers in the Iraqi army? Do you know anyone in the Baath Party? Do you have any information about chemical weapons? Do you know of any organizations that are planning to attack American soldiers? I felt like I was being interrogated by Saddam's intelligence service."

He was released a week later but said guards at the airport refused to give him the satellite phone they confiscated when he entered the prison. Soldiers regularly ask to use satellite phones to make phone calls home to the United States.

The human rights group Amnesty International recently issued a statement that said conditions at Camp Cropper might amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

About 11,000 prisoners are held across Iraq, coalition officials said at a briefing Thursday. Exact statistics haven't been compiled, and the number fluctuates with new arrests and releases.

Concerns also have been raised about prisoners being forced to wear black hoods over their heads in 110-degree heat.

"I interviewed an 11-year-old boy who was detained for three weeks," said Joanna Oyediran, an Amnesty International researcher. "His father spent days trying to find out what happened and talked to U.S. soldiers at an Iraqi police station, but he never got any information."

Bremer said he was surprised that Amnesty International didn't say in its report that "the human rights of the average Iraqi are light-years better today than they were 12 weeks ago."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+PRISONERS