Rough Justice

The family of Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister who surrendered early to Coalition forces, is outraged. Once the international face of Saddam's regime, Aziz is now confined in a stifling room with just a bed at Camp Cropper, the American prison at Baghdad airport. His relatives can't visit him, and they have no idea when or if he'll be released. At least he can write: "I am okay and getting good medical care, but I miss you all and the grandchildren. Hugs and kisses," he penned in a letter to his wife, Violet, on July 15. The one-page letter, shown to NEWSWEEK, included a P.S.: "Please send me magazines and newspapers, cigarettes (a lot, preferably Marlboros), underwear and a disdash [the lightweight gown for men]." Violet Aziz says she sent what he requested, "but when I wanted to send more, they said, 'Only once a month.' Where are the human rights that the U.S. is always talking about?" Aziz's sister Amal adds: "It's a shame how he is being treated."

Few Americans will get teary for Tariq Aziz, faithful servant to the Butcher of Baghdad. But consider the case of Rafet Kamal, a 27-year-old shop clerk who went out for cigarettes one night two weeks ago and never returned home. Kamal's father, named Kamal Sayit, an unemployed laborer with no connections and no English, went from prison to police station to hospital looking for him. At Camp Cropper, he was simply turned away at gunpoint. Finally, after 10 days of fruitless searching, Sayit visited Baghdad's morgue last Tuesday. He suspected the worst by this point, if only because his son had taken a pistol out with him. It was for personal protection, Sayit says, but he knew Coalition troops forbade it. Attendants ushered the father to one of five refrigerated rooms, where bodies lay piled two or three deep, nearly all of them young men with gunshot wounds. There he found his son lying on top, his body riddled with bullets. Sayit beat his own head with both fists and cried, "I just want to know: was he killed by American soldiers?"

He will never know for certain, because no one will ever investigate. That's partly because there is no codified system of justice in occupied Iraq. As many as 8,000 people have disappeared since Saddam's regime collapsed, and many relatives are searching for answers about their fate. More than 5,000 are in U.S. custody; others may be among those killed by fellow Iraqis, and in some cases by American troops. Those who have been detained are nearly --always held incommunicado, without access to lawyers or even the right to contact their families. In most cases their loved ones can't find out where they are. With Iraqi prisons looted and destroyed, captives are jailed in barbed-wire compounds, converted warehouses and vast tent camps. Conditions are primitive; at their worst they amount to what Amnesty International describes as "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

But the lack of a proper justice system is not just a human-rights issue. It also raises questions about whether the U.S. military, in its campaign to stamp out the Iraqi resistance, is creating new enemies. Last week, after a surge of criticism, the U.S. commander in Iraq promised reforms. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said he was "working pretty hard to ensure that with our tactics, techniques and procedures... we are not alienating the Iraqi people." He also announced that by this week lists of all detainees would be posted at Civil Military Affairs offices throughout Iraq, as well as at police stations and courthouses.

How many detainees are there? Previously the Coalition Provisional Authority had estimated the prisoner population at between 3,000 and 4,000. Last week Gen. Janis Karpinski, the Army's top Military Police commander, said the total now tops 5,000, only about 500 of them considered POWs. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which moved a staff of 20 officials from Geneva to Baghdad after the city fell to American forces, has 8,000 missing-person cases in its files. That may include people who have died, or whose disappearances are not connected with Coalition activities.

Some Iraqis know their relatives have been picked up by Coalition forces but can't locate them. One is Amal Abdullah Mosul, whose husband was arrested two weeks ago as he drove past a military compound in downtown Baghdad. Soldiers accused him of having driven by too often--she says he has three sisters in different houses in that neighborhood--and searched his car. They discovered his ID card, which showed he was a retired brigadier general. "They said, 'You're a terrorist,' and handcuffed him." What his ID card didn't show was that he had been imprisoned for six months by the previous regime for possessing an illegal satellite dish. "We were so happy the Americans saved us from Saddam," says Mosul, "but now I'm quite bitter." During Saddam's time, Mosul says, "at least [my husband] was arrested for a reason, and I knew where he was." She has been making the rounds of hospitals, prisons and morgues. "Now my 7-year-old son keeps saying, 'Show me the soldier who arrested my father; I want to kill him'."

Uncle Sam is no Saddam. But Iraqis expect Americans to meet a much higher standard. Entesar Janabi was thankful that she finally located her 17-year-old son, Ahmed, at Camp Cropper, thanks to a civil-affairs officer who found him in a database. But that was after weeks of being rebuffed. Ahmed had been picked up during a car search because someone else in the vehicle had a hidden weapon. "They're just so disorganized. Nobody can see anybody, nobody is responsible, they keep telling you 'This is not my responsibility'." At one police station, she met an American sergeant who had his feet up on the desk. "All he would say was, 'I can't help you, lady'." As Janabi recounted this--standing in an ICRC office, where 200 people a day file missing-person reports--another Iraqi chimed in: "You're lucky that Americans took your son. In the days of Saddam Hussein, he would have been gone forever." "Yes," Janabi replied, "but we expect the Americans to be better than that."

Many prisoners who are released complain about bad conditions in captivity. A month after their release, three brothers held for a time at Camp Cropper still bore the marks of the plastic flexicuffs commonly put on prisoners. A frequent punishment is to make men kneel outside in the sun, where afternoon temperatures exceed 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Those under interrogation are subject to sleep deprivation, loud music and other methods the military believes stop short of torture. Authorities even held a suspect's wife and children as hostages until he turned himself in, which he did. And a military investigation is underway against four American guards for abusive treatment of their captives.

ICRC officials said U.S. authorities were working to improve conditions, and were responsive to the group's concerns about treatment of civilian detainees under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Privately, though, one Red Cross delegate says, "What they're doing is completely illegal, and they know it." Common criminals should be separated from people considered military security risks, and all should have the right to trials and basic safeguards. U.S. military spokesman Col. Guy Shields acknowledges shortcomings, but says the military is determined to resolve them. "In many cases, because of the security environment, we do not allow visitors [including families and lawyers]," he says, while also suggesting the system may be liberalized as prisons get renovated. "Having said that, the system that we have now is much better than the system of the previous regime." Or, as CPA head L. Paul Bremer III puts it, "no one is getting his tongue cut out anymore."

American forces, however, have killed hundreds of Iraqis, including many innocent bystanders. The military keeps no records of civilian victims, and usually lets family members take the body away. If no one claims it, soldiers take it to the morgue. Sometimes the victims are shot when failing to heed a roadblock, or when they happen into a fire fight. Last week a bomb under a Humvee exploded, and troops fired wildly into the crowded shops nearby. There was no return fire, but the shooting went on for hours and left at least one Iraqi bystander dead. The week before, four Christians on their way to church in Baghdad's upper-class Mansour district were shot to death as they happened upon the scene of a house raid; the military says the incident is under investigation. With at least a dozen hit-and-run attacks a day taking place against American troops, such mishaps are commonplace. Adding to the body count, troops are now allowed to shoot looters and curfew violators if they don't heed orders.

At Baghdad's morgue, the results are plain to see. Two or three times a day now, according to clerk Muhammed Hussein, the morgue receives corpses of people killed by the Coalition; they arrive in the black body bags used by the U.S. Army. Pathologist Hassan Faisal Lazim says more than 3,000 victims have arrived at the facility, which serves only Baghdad, since Saddam's regime fell. Most are victims of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, and 95 percent have been killed by gunshot. While only 15 to 20 percent of them have been shot by the Coalition, according to Lazim's estimates, that's still a significant death toll. General Sanchez said last week: "Unfortunately, in some cases, when you're in the middle of a fire fight, there are innocent civilians that are hurt."

Last week pickup trucks pulled into the Baghdad morgue's driveway, one after another, with bodies of young men who had been shot. Some came with wailing family members; in other cases corpses had been collected from the street after curfew lifted at 6 a.m. Policeman Satter Abdul Wahid arrived in his car, the rear window busted out, with a man's body in the trunk, the feet sticking out over the side. The corpse had been found on the street, shot seven times with heavy-caliber bullets; beyond that no one knew anything. "Even if they didn't do this, I blame the Coalition forces," Wahid said. "If they let the police operate independently, this wouldn't happen."

By 10:30 that morning, Lazim had performed 22 autopsies, and bodies were still arriving. All but one were gunshot victims. A steady stream of Iraqis arrived, looking at the faces of the corpses in the truck beds, on the autopsy tables inside and stacked in the refrigerators. Most went away relieved, to search elsewhere, but occasionally someone started wailing. No one could tell Kamal Sayit who had killed his son, but his wounds seemed to be from a small-caliber weapon such as a pistol--probably not military. It was small consolation. He slumped to the tiled examining room floor and wept into his hands.