U.S. bans coercion of Iraqi prisoners

No sleep deprivation or similar methods — ‘We will not even entertain a request’

Washington — Under a barrage of international and domestic criticism, the top U.S. commander in Iraq has banned virtually all coercive interrogation practices, such as forcing prisoners to crouch for long periods or depriving them of sleep, the Pentagon announced on Friday.

The commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, still will consider requests to use less severe techniques, such as holding prisoners in isolation for more than 30 days, according to a senior Central Command official who briefed reporters Friday. The general has approved 25 such requests since last October, the official said.

But the official said that Sanchez would deny requests to use harsher methods.

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“Simply, we will not even entertain a request, so don’t even send it up for a review,” a senior Central Command official told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.

Previously, certain interrogation techniques were supposed to be used only with the general’s explicit approval. Sanchez issued the new guidelines Thursday, the same day that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Baghdad and to Abu Ghraib prison, where the worst abuses occurred, in an effort to quiet the furor over the abuse scandal.

Rumsfeld has said that the U.S. military in Iraq was abiding by the Geneva Conventions and that the mistreatment was the work of a terrible few. But the International Red Cross had warned U.S. officials for months that Iraqi prisoners were being abused in U.S.-run prisons.

Even Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, acknowledged at a Senate hearing Thursday that hooding prisoners or forcing them to crouch naked for 45 minutes — tactics available to interrogators with Sanchez’s approval under the old policy — were inhumane.

The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, acknowledged that it was “likely that the heightened scrutiny of the last couple weeks” had prompted Sanchez to revise the interrogation rules. He said Rumsfeld had not ordered Sanchez to change the policy.

The changes appear to affect only operations in Iraq and would not change interrogation methods at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where harsher approaches have been authorized.

The Army’s top intelligence officer, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, had presented to senators this week a list of techniques, some of which were approved for use on all prisoners and others that required Sanchez’s approval. The chart also listed safeguards for interrogations, including a warning that “approaches must always be humane and lawful.”

Senators said that Alexander had characterized the one-page chart as a product of the U.S. military high command in Baghdad. But the Central Command official disclosed Friday that the document had actually been produced sometime last October by the Army’s 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, which oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib.

The Central Command official also said that until last fall, commanders had not had an interrogation policy specific to Iraq, relying instead on basic principles in an Army field manual.

That changed, however, after Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the head of detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, visited Iraqi prisons last September and recommended several changes, including the creation of a specific interrogation policy for prisons in Iraq.

An interim policy, from Sept. 14 to Oct. 12, 2003, was written that spelled out a list of approved interrogation techniques for all prisoners, a separate list of harsher tactics that required Sanchez’s approval, and the list of safeguards.

A revised policy took effect on Oct. 12 that dropped the listing of the approaches needing the general’s approval, although the Army intelligence brigade that actually conducted the interrogations produced a chart that kept the old listings and posted it as a guide.

A senior military official said the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad expected interrogators and their commanders to request exceptional permission for any approach that was not in the preapproved category.

“There are reasonable people and very intelligent people who can differ on what is authorized, what’s permissible under the Geneva Conventions,” the official said.

The official said, for instance, there were harsher approaches, now barred by Sanchez, that in his view did not violate the conventions. The official said requiring a prisoner to stand at attention would be an example of what military interrogators call “a stress position” that would be allowable.

Military officials said that since last October, interrogators had requested to use stress positions in three cases, but each one was denied at the brigade level without ever reaching Sanchez.

The official acknowledged that a Red Cross report submitted last November to Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, head of the 800th Military Police Brigade, contained allegations that the official said were “very concerning” and had been investigated by Army criminal investigators as well as Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who first reported the abuses. But the official did not elaborate.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats who had accused the Pentagon this week of employing practices that violated the Geneva Conventions applauded the policy changes. “Pressure works,” said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

House and Senate officials said they expected to hold more hearings into the unfolding scandal.

In Iraq on Friday, criminal charges were referred against Spc. Charles Graner, bringing him to a general court-martial. The seven charges against Graner are conspiracy to maltreat detainees, dereliction of duty for willfully failing to protect detainees from abuse, cruelty and maltreatment, maltreatment of detainees, assaulting detainees, committing indecent acts, adultery and obstruction of justice.

A military judge will arraign Graner along with Sgt. Javal Davis on Thursday, but a date and place for the court-martial has not been set.

Davis acknowledged on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday that he had stomped on prisoners’ hands, but said he had been directed to do that by military intelligence officers.

Also Friday, the military released 293 detainees from the Abu Ghraib prison as part of an effort to reduce the numbers at the prison.

U.S. officials have said that at least 60 percent of Iraqis taken into custody by U.S. forces — there are about 3,000 at Abu Ghraib now — had been arrested by mistake. An additional 475 prisoners will be released in May, the military said.

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