BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi government has promised to investigate detention facilities across the country to ensure prisoners are not tortured, the United States said Thursday, sharply warning Iraqi officials against allowing Shiite militias a role in the security services following allegations of torture of Sunni Arabs.
The interior minister, who is in charge of the facilities and security forces, said torture claims were exaggerated.
Sectarian rhetoric sharpened four days after U.S. troops found up to 173 malnourished detainees — some showing signs of torture — in an Interior Ministry building in the capital's Jadriyah district. Most were believed to be Sunni Arabs, the main group in the insurgency.
A leader of a major Sunni party, Tariq al-Hashimi, told Iraq's Sharqiyah television that his group had submitted 50 complaints of prisoner abuse to the government, "but we did not receive a timely response."
Interior Minister Bayn Jabr, a Shiite, brushed aside the complaints, denied sectarian bias and claimed that "every time" al-Hashimi has differences with him "he exerts pressure on me through the U.S. Embassy."
"I reject torture, and I will punish those who perform torture," Jabr said. "No one was beheaded, no one was killed" — a clear reference to the beheadings of foreign and Iraqi hostages by insurgents, including al-Qaida's Iraq wing.
He also said "those who are supporting terrorism are making the exaggerations" about torture and that only seven detainees showed signs of abuse.
"They have described the interior minister's office as a place of execution," Jabr said. "Let him come to show me if there is an execution place in this shelter."
But Voice of America reported on its Web site Thursday that Jabr's remarks about the number of abused prisoners contradicted what it witnessed Monday night, when U.S. troops moved the men from the Interior Ministry detention center to the American-run Abu Ghraib prison for medical care.
At least a third of the detainees "appeared severely emaciated and many showed cuts and bruises on their faces, arms and legs," Voice of America reported, adding that authorities took one man out of the facility on a stretcher because he was unable to walk.
Jabr said that prisoner was a Shiite who suffered from polio and had been arrested after helping Sunni extremists detonate a roadside bomb, according to the VOA report.
In a statement Thursday, the U.S. Embassy said Iraqi authorities had given assurances they will investigate the conditions of the detainees found Sunday night and "undertake measures to ensure that no Ministry of Interior detainees would be subject to abuse anywhere in Iraq."
"Detainee abuse is not and will not be tolerated by either the Iraqi government" or by U.S.-led forces, the embassy said. It said the government agreed to a six-point plan for ensuring accountability for abuse claims but did not give details.
"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," it added.
Prominent Sunni Arabs have complained for months about abuse by Interior Ministry forces, who they say have been infiltrated by Shiite militias. The Sunnis called for an international inquiry after the detainees were found at the lockup in Jadriyah.
The government denies the militia allegations.
Last May, however, officials confirmed a Shiite militia affiliated with Jabr's party helped capture five men wanted in a deadly car bombing in Baghdad. Another Shiite militia took part in a joint raid with police last month southeast of the capital in which about 20 people were killed.
The U.S. statement seemed designed to reassure the Sunni Arab minority that the Americans are keen to defend their interests at a time when Washington is encouraging a big Sunni Arab turnout in the Dec. 15 election — hoping that will help take the steam out of the insurgency.
America's death toll rose Thursday as the U.S. military reported a U.S. Marine killed the day before in Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. An Army soldier died Thursday in a traffic accident near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, the command said.
The deaths raised to at least 2,082 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
U.S. officials have refused to say how many detainees showed signs of torture and whether most were Sunnis, pending completion of an Iraqi investigation.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters that American soldiers, led by U.S. Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, went to the Jadriyah facility because a 15-year-old boy was believed to be held there illegally. Interior Ministry officers denied the U.S. troops entry until Horst telephoned Jabr, who ordered his staff to let the Americans in, Lynch said.
"When he entered the facility, Gen. Horst saw 169 individuals that had been detained. Some of those individuals looked like they had been abused, malnourished and mistreated," Lynch said. "Gen. Horst and his soldiers took control of the facility, took appropriate actions with the Iraqi leadership and the Iraqi government."
In a nationally televised press conference, Jabr, the interior minister, delivered a spirited defense of his agency and said the detainees included Shiites and Sunnis — some among the most "dangerous terrorists" in the country.