The New Abu Ghraib

Iraqis are accustomed to torture--no sooner were Saddam Hussein's murderous prisons finally closed than came photos of Abu Ghraib and a grinning Lynndie England--and Baghdad's latest abuse scandal is galvanizing officials leaders along sectarian lines. In recent weeks, emerging evidence that state-run forces operated a black site prison where hundreds of Sunni men were sexually brutalized has gripped the nation. And given the uncertainty surrounding Iraq's latest contentious election, Shiite leaders seem intent on using the outrage to undermine the stability of the ruling Sunni coalition. But human rights investigators say that torture is probably less a political tool than a daily reality in Iraq's broken justice system.

Samer Muscati, an Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, began to hear rumors of torture trickling in before the Los Angeles Times broke the story: A secret prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, at the site of Old Muthanna airbase, where more than 400 Sunni men had been held for months by special forces reporting to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

There, according to a slim report released by Human Rights Watch last week, which has been widely disseminated in the Iraqi press and is based on Muscati's interviews with 42 Muthanna detainees, nearly all the suspected insurgents--among them academics, physicians, and teenagers--were regularly tortured, including being "hung upside-down, deprived of air, whipped, beaten, given electric shocks, and sodomized."

"We received authorization to visit the prisoners before the story was broken," Muscati, a 36-year old Canadian born to Iraqi parents, when I reached him late last week in Baghdad. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have been allowed to."

The prisoners at Muthanna were from Mosul, Iraq's predominantly Sunni second city and an al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia stronghold. In a series of anti-insurgent raids last fall, which Sunni provincial officials protested as warrantless, Iraqi forces swept the men up and threw them into the secret detention center, outside the purview of either the ministries of justice or defense.

The abuses were as regular as they were sadistic. Some men had their teeth knocked in, or fingernails pulled out. Others were sexually assaulted--with broomsticks and pistol barrels. Forced sex, involving both inmates and guards, was rampant. A son, standing before his naked father, was told to confess or see his father raped.

"The interrogators would tie my arms behind my back and blindfold me before they would hang me upside down and beat me," one detainee told Human Rights Watch. "They would suffocate me with a bag until I passed out and would wake me with an electric shock to my genitals."

Muscati said this was unique because it was so routine and systematic.

"The scars and bruisings we saw were identical on detainees--it seems that there was a practice, a policy, in this facility to use certain methods to extract information."

It was close to midnight in Iraq and even through the static Muscati's exhaustion was audible. "Sorry if I sound sedate. It's's been a long day."

In late March, when Iraq's minister of human rights, Wijdan Salim, discovered the existence of Muthanna, the prison was shuttered and its detainees moved elsewhere.

"I think there are people in government who are just as disgusted as we are, and are trying to end these kinds of abuses," said Muscati, praising Salim and her ministry for airing the scandal. "But not everyone in government is on the same page."

Prime Minister Maliki has categorically denied any prior knowledge of the site. "There are no secret prisons in Iraq at all," he said last Monday. (Asked how Maliki could have not known his special forces were operating the black site, Muscati demurred. "If he didn't know what was going on, he should know now.")

In early April, Muscati, along with his colleague Olivier Bercault, was given access to more than 300 of the men, in the new Baghdad prison where they're being held in "cagelike" cells. Permitted just a few hours, and stripped of their cell phones, cameras and audio kits, Muscati and Bercault asked the groups of men to "show us their wounds. It was horrific what we saw: the welts on peoples back, the bruising on arms, nails that had been ripped out, these horrible marks."

In one-on-one interviews, the brutality of the sexual violence was impossible to ignore, even if it was difficult to discuss. "It was conducted not necessarily for gratification but for humiliation. Especially in this culture, it's extremely humiliating to be molested in the way that they were."

Muscati told me that, when Salim and the human rights ministry first visited the site in March, many of the men "did speak out and tell their stories, and there were repercussions." Before the site could be closed, "The abusers actually went back and inflicted more torture on those that had spoken out."

He was surprised, then, at how open the men were with Western investigators. "They were just desperate to talk and tell their stories, because they've gone through this horrific ordeal. And they said, 'We have nothing to lose. They've broken us, they taken us away from our families and humiliated us. What else can they do to us?'"

The abuses at Muthanna are said to highlight continuing sectarian violence in Iraq--Sunni prisoners tortured at the hands of Shiite captors--and much has been made over the political fallout of the report, especially given the narrow defeat of Maliki's State of Law Coalition last month's national elections.

"Disclosure of a secret prison in which Sunni Arabs were systematically tortured would not only become an international embarrassment," read an internal U.S. embassy memo, "but would likely compromise the prime minister's ability to put together a viable coalition with him at the helm." (When asked for comment on Muthanna, the State Department's Near East division failed to respond.)

But the facts on the ground are far more complicated than such a narrative suggests. "There's a lot of people playing up the Sunni angle to this," said Muscati, "but Iraq's an equal opportunity torturer when it comes to detainees--Shiites are tortured as well. It's not sectarian by nature." He continued, "The treatment of prisoners has a long history of abuse in Iraq. Under Saddam's time, torture was endemic. It's unfortunately just business as usual."

Maliki appears preoccupied to the threat of sectarian rhetoric, and last Monday, on state-controlled Iraqiya television, Malaki, "by turns denied, played down and distanced himself from the latest torture allegations," calling them "'lies' and 'a smear campaign' hatched by foreign embassies and the media and then perpetuated by his political rivals."

For their part, Sunni political leaders have seized the scandal as evidence of continued authoritarianism and disregard for the rule of law; one member of the parliamentary bloc opposing Maliki, a Sunni from Nineveh province, told the New York Times, "This secret prison has a sectarian character, and it shows that the security forces and the army have an iron fist outside the framework of the Constitution."

Muscati, who has spent a year-and-a-half investigating Iraq's many shades of grey for Human Rights Watch, was hesitant to promote such a black-and-white reading. "That angle tends to be simplified, in the sense that the government's Shia, and it therefore makes sense that they would treat Sunnis in the manner, but it's more complicated than that. Governments generally overreact when it comes to terrorism."

Gabriel Gatehouse, a BBC reporter following the story in Baghdad, gave me a similar assessment. "There's a certain worry that with the political situation being as fragile and uncertain as it is, the fact that most of these inmates were Sunnis could fuel some kind of tension. But to be honest, I haven't seen any actual evidence of that, talking to people on the street."

More troubling than the near-term political fallout is the impact of systematic, if secret, torture inside Iraqi prisons on a generation of Muslim men--and on the country's emotional normalcy.

"There's a cycle of violence that continues," said Muscati. "When people are humiliated and degraded, it only creates this festering environment where, if people weren't insurgents before, it gives them good reason to disavow the government. It radicalizes you, this kind of experience."

"This breeds extremism," a Sunni tribal leader from Nineveh told the New York Times. "In our country a man who is raped will commit suicide, and how do you think he will do it?"