One US Hostage – and 20,000 Iraqi Hostages

Private First Class Matt Maupin assigned to the U.S. Army Reserve’s 724th Transportation Company based at Bartonville, Illinois, became the first prisoner taken by Iraqi insurgents since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. military is currently holding more than 20,000 Iraqis behind bars – most of them taken during house to house searches by the U.S. military.

Take the village of Abu Siffa, an hour’s drive north of Baghdad. Cattle graze on the side of the road and date palms sway in the wind. The mighty Tigris flows nearby.

Rejan Mohammed Hassen stands in front of the rubble that was her house and recalls the night last summer when the U.S. Army took her sons and destroyed her house.

“Early in the morning they took us from the home and asked us to stand around,” she recalls. “When we questioned them, the Americans started to beat the women. After that, two tanks came to our house and started to shoot using the machine-gun on top of the tank and then two missiles from the head of the tank.”

By the time the U.S. Army left Abu Siffa an hour later, 73 men from the village had been rounded up, including all four of Rejan Mohammed Hassen’s sons. Villagers say the U.S. troops did not find the arms caches they were looking for, but the soldiers did confiscate several trucks and large sums of cash.

Nine months later, 15-year-old Ahmed Itar Hassen is one of only two villagers to have emerged from custody. He was finally released without being charged with any offence.

“For the first six days we were all staying in an open field surrounded by razor wire,” he says. “There was no tent and no mat under us and we were exposed to the sun and the rain.”

He says the soldiers provided no toilet facilities, leaving the men to relieve themselves in the open. “It was impossible to sleep,” he recalls. “The American soldiers threw pebbles at us all night long.”

Eventually, Ahmed says he was transferred to Baghdad’s Abu Grahb prison. There he was held in solitary confinement – in a 3-foot by 4-foot cell used to keep political prisoners during the reign of Saddam Hussein. He says he was not allowed outside to exercise, to see his family or a lawyer.

“At night they threw a dog in the cell to frighten me,” he says. “We call it a wolf- dog, the big police dog. A soldier just put it in my cell every night.”

Ahmed says the dog was taken away after he complained to a Red Cross observer who came to his cell.

Human rights groups say incidents like those at Abu Siffa happen far too often during the occupation.

A report released by Amnesty International catalogues 15 confirmed incidents of house demolition and notes regular reports of torture and beatings perpetrated against prisoners in U.S. custody. The report also alleges that prisoners are subjected to sleep deprivation, hooding, and bright lights.

Sa’ad Sultan Hussein, lawyer with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Ministry for Human Rights says the occupation force has promised to allow his agency to open an office at Abu Grahb, but so far they have only given his teams guided tours of the prisons.

“I have only seen what they wanted me to see,” he admits. “We didn’t enter the interrogation room. We were not allowed to witness any interrogations.”

Sa’ad Sultan Hussein says the occupying forces are currently holding about 15,000 prisoners at Abu Grahb, the vast majority for supposed political crimes.

An additional 7,500 prisoners are being held at a joint Anglo-American prison in the southern port city Um Qasr. That prison was built to hold prisoners of war (POW) last year.

It has been a year since 70-year-old Boyadin Sayid Jassem last saw his son Riyad, who was conscripted into the Iraqi army to fight the U.S.-led invasion. He says Riyad was last seen at a battle in al-Yusufia, 15 miles south of Baghdad.

“A friend of my son told me that my son was wounded and that the Americans picked him up and took him,” he says. “But to where nobody knows.”

Boyadin Sayid Jassem quakes as he speaks. He says he visited every U.S. prison in the Baghdad area before hearing about the POW prison at Um Qasr.

“I went to Um Qasr,” he says. “I described the situation, and when they checked in their computer they told me my son’s name is in their record. So I asked them ‘where is he?’ and they told me ‘we can’t tell you now because of the security situation’.”

Among those believed to be in the custody of the U.S. military is the eldest son of Hussein Salem Khleff. On April 6 last year during the middle of the war Hussein’s entire family was fleeing the front in their mini-bus down a main road south of Baghdad.

“We were surprised by the American forces,” he relates. “They just started shooting. My brother was on top of the trailer carrying a while flag of peace. A bullet hit his leg. The American forces came towards us and then the Americans climbed on the trailer. When they saw that a bullet hit his leg they called for a medic.”

After half an hour a U.S. medical helicopter came and took his son away. It was the last time Hussein saw him.

“They told me we are heading for Baghdad, but when he gets well we will bring him to the same place he was wounded,” Khleff says. “I have searched for him at every American base. Nobody can tell me where he is.”

A year after his son disappeared, Khleff has given up on formal processes. He has taken to posting photos of his missing son on lamp posts around Baghdad. He has asked Arab satellite TV stations like al-Jazeera to show the photo on a regular basis. So far, nothing has worked.

“The major problem that Iraqi people suffer from is random capture by the U.S. military,” says Sa’ad Sultan Hussein. “They are disappeared and no one can tell where they are or the reason for their capture. They even don’t allow the families to visit them, and the Geneva Convention says they must allow the families to visit.”

U.S. soldiers serving as prison guards at Abu Grahib refused to comment. They said the only officers authorised to comment were at the U.S. military base Camp Victory, formerly Saddam Hussein International Airport. Senior officers there were unavailable.