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U.N. human rights agency blasts U.S. forces in Iraq

BERLIN—Coalition forces involved in the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners might be guilty of war crimes, the top U.N. official for human rights said in a report released Friday.

The 45-page report by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights isn't entirely critical. It says Iraq is better off now than before the invasion, when it was under "a brutal, murderous, torturing gang that preyed on its own people."

It also points out the difficulties of working in a country subject to terrorist attacks and insurrection, and that "hardships suffered by Iraqis in the aftermath of the victory of coalition forces were clearly not intended."

Nevertheless, the 45-page report concludes that serious human-rights problems occurred in Iraq, and it contributes to the debate on human rights there by lending the authority of the U.N. human rights overseer. It details a broad range of abuses, from torture and the sexual humiliation of prisoners to other military operations that unjustly deprived people of the ability to travel or use hospitals and other facilities safely.

In its strongest passages, the 45-page U.N. report says that torture and psychological coercion against prisoners to extract intelligence violate international humanitarian law.

"Willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, if committed against detainees protected by international humanitarian law, constitute a grave breach under the Geneva Conventions and therefore of international humanitarian law and is prohibited at any time, irrespective of the status of the person detained," the report said. "The above-described acts might be designated as war crimes by a competent tribunal."

Acting Commissioner Bertrand Ramcharan of Guyana, who's been in the position since Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil was killed in a terrorist attack in Baghdad last summer, cited numerous interviews and other reports, from government, news media and human-rights sources, as the basis for the report.

These sources include "disturbing reports in the media about certain acts committed by some members of the coalition forces that are at variance with international human rights norms," he wrote in an introductory letter.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the criticisms "are certainly a matter of concern" and that the U.S. government was asking for more specifics about some of the allegations in order to investigate them.

On the Abu Ghraib allegations, the United States was working to "determine guilt and prosecute those responsible," he said.

The U.N. report said that there had been a lack of transparency and accountability about detentions, and so the world had no idea how many Iraqis were arrested and detained or where and in what conditions they were held.

In addition, the report found that coalition troops allegedly interrogated children, humiliated Muslim women and jailed men without explanation.

The report included some examples of alleged abuse by coalition forces: A man who fell asleep while driving was shot when his car drifted close to a military jeep; a father and son were fired upon when they pulled over on a national road to allow a military convoy to pass, and the son later died; Iraqi police were fired upon when mistaken for the burglars they were arresting, and four Iraqis died.

Iraqis who left their country and were interviewed in Amman, Jordan, spoke of "arbitrary arrests and detention as an ongoing phenomenon since April 2003."

"Coalition forces break front doors or windows and throw hand grenades into the room before they access the property," the report said. "In some cases, money or jewelry found during the raid is being taken by soldiers and not being returned."

Coalition soldiers led women wearing only bedclothes from their homes during night searches, a grave humiliation before neighbors in a conservative Muslim country. It also cited cases in which coalition forces allegedly threw Qurans on the ground or tore them apart.

The report said the first allegations of prisoner abuse were raised by human rights groups in July 2003, and Vieira de Mello raised those concerns with coalition officials in a July 15 meeting.

Not all allegations in the report involved arrest and detention. For example, the report said that coalition forces had restricted access to health care in fighting zones, sometimes simply by occupying areas near hospitals, thus making those areas targets for fighting and too dangerous for civilians.

And, the report noted international law required the military to choose strategies that are the least dangerous to civilians. Some of those interviewed for the report, however, said that coalition forces in some cases overreacted and harmed civilians.

For example, it said: "An Iraqi threw a grenade at coalition forces tanks which were stationed close to a peaceful demonstration. The coalition forces soldiers opened fire shooting into the demonstration, killing a girl, though it was clear that the perpetrator had run off in a different direction. Many of the interviewees argued that the coalition forces simply overreact."

The report, which includes events from as recently as this week, was released after U.N. representatives from the United States and Britain were given a day to point out errors and make suggestions.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.