BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq's Interior Ministry said Tuesday that it has charged 57 members of the Iraqi police, including a general, in the alleged torture of hundreds of detainees at a prison in eastern Baghdad.
Torture is considered widespread among the poorly trained police force, which has suffered heavy losses at the hands of Sunni insurgents and criminal gangs, but Tuesday's announcement marked the first time the government has sought charges. Iraqi police are accused of close ties to the Shiite death squads whose daily abductions and killings fuel the sectarian violence convulsing the country.
Authorities reported finding the bullet-riddled bodies Tuesday of a dozen apparent death squad victims floating in the Tigris River south of Baghdad, all blindfolded and bound at the wrists and ankles. Hundreds of such killings have been recorded in Baghdad since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February ignited revenge sectarian killings.
Some officers on the Shiite-dominated police force were accused of abetting the violence by allowing the gunmen to violate curfews and pass through checkpoints.
The concerns were underscored by the discovery of a police torture chamber in Baghdad last year, and by the apparent complicity of police in a mass kidnapping of Sunni workers that prompted authorities to take an entire police brigade out of service for retraining.
Among those charged in the torture at Site No. 4, the prison in eastern Baghdad, were a general, 19 officers, 20 noncommissioned officers and 17 patrolmen or civilian employees.
Their names were withheld, but ministry spokesman Brig. Abdel-Karim Khalaf said the general would face trial on criminal charges as well as administrative punishment.
Khalaf did not specify what the administrative punishment would be, nor would he give details about specific abuses or what sentences the policemen could receive if found guilty.
"All of these people will stand trial and the court will decide their fate," Khalaf said.
Officials say they plan to eventually retrain all 26 national police battalions — the Interior Ministry's paramilitary units — and weed out those suspected of ties to sectarian militias and criminal gangs.
Iraq's main Sunni political party issued a statement accusing "criminal militias" of being behind the torching of two Sunni mosques in western Baghdad on Sunday.
"We demand the government at least issue a statement condemning such crimes, as it does when other places are attacked," the Iraqi Islamic Party said.
Meanwhile, a subdued Saddam Hussein returned to court for his genocide trial, two days after being sentenced to hang for war crimes in the 1980s killings of 148 people in the town of Dujail.
"I call on all Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds, to forgive, reconcile and shake hands," Saddam said after respectfully challenging one witness' testimony.
Saddam's trial in connection with the deaths of 180,000 Kurds, most of them civilians, in the 1987-88 crackdown called Operation Anfal, will continue while an appeal in the Dujail case is under way.
Traffic was back on the streets of Baghdad after the lifting of a round-the-clock curfew that was largely successful in heading off sectarian violence that was feared after the verdict.
The U.S. military said a Baghdad-based soldier was killed by a roadside bomb on Monday, bringing the death toll among U.S. troops this month to 19. A British soldier was killed in an attack Monday on a base in the southern city of Basra, the first British casualty this month.
The U.S. military said this month's American casualties included two lieutenant colonels, among the highest ranking soldiers to die in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
Lt. Col. Eric J. Kruger, 40, was killed Thursday by a roadside bomb along with Lt. Col. Paul J. Finken, 40, and Staff Sgt. Joseph A. Gage, 28. All three men were riding in a Humvee in eastern Baghdad.
Fighting also was reported between gunmen and U.S. soldiers in the western city of Ramadi, a center of pro-Saddam sentiment among the former Sunni ruling class. Police and the military said they had no word on casualties.
In other violence reported by official, six Iraqi soldiers died in sniper attacks and a roadside bombing in Karmah, 50 miles west of Baghdad, and at least five people were killed and 22 wounded in renewed mortar barrages against northern Baghdad's predominantly Sunni Azamiyah district.
The government on Monday reached out to disaffected Sunnis in hopes of enticing them away from the insurgency, which has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and is responsible for the vast majority of U.S. casualties. The Supreme National Commission for de-Baathification has prepared a draft law that could see thousands of members of Baath party reinstated in their jobs, the commission's head told The Associated Press.
A national reconciliation plan that was announced in June by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, in which he called for reviewing the de-Baathification program.
The United States dissolved and banned the Baath party in May 2003, a month after toppling Saddam. The U.S. later softened its stance, inviting former high-level officers from the disbanded military to join the security forces.
The former top U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, also allowed thousands of teachers who were Baathists to return to work. He conceived of the so-called de-Baathification effort but later found it had gutted key ministries and the military.
About 1.5 million of Iraq's 27 million people belonged to the Baath party — formally known as the Baath Arab Socialist Party — when Saddam was ousted. Most said they joined for professional, not ideological, reasons.