US Takes Hostages in Iraq

Newsday, 5/28/2004

May 26, 2004
Online version
BAGHDAD — U.S. troops wanted Jeanan Moayad's father. When they couldn't find him, they took her husband in his place.

Dhafir Ibrahim has been in U.S. custody for nearly four months. Moayad insists he is being held as a bargaining chip, and military officials have told her he will be released when her father surrenders. Her father is a scientist and former Baath party member who fled to Jordan soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

"My husband is a hostage," said Moayad, 35, an architect who carries a small portrait of Ibrahim in her purse. "He didn't commit any crime."

DOZENS DETAINED In a little-noticed development amid Iraq's prison abuse scandal, the U.S. military is holding dozens of Iraqis as bargaining chips to put pressure on their wanted relatives to surrender, according to human rights groups. These detainees are not accused of any crimes, and experts say their detention violates the Geneva Conventions and other international laws. The practice also risks associating the United States with the tactics of countries it has long criticized for arbitrary arrests.

"It's clearly an abuse of the powers of arrest, to arrest one person and say that you're going to hold him until he gives information about somebody else, especially a close relative," said John Quigley, an international law professor at Ohio State University. "Arrests are supposed to be based on suspicion that the person has committed some offense."

U.S. officials deny that there is a systematic practice of detaining relatives to pressure Iraqi fugitives into surrendering. "The coalition does not take hostages," said a senior military official who asked not to be named. "Relatives who might have information about wanted persons are sometimes detained for questioning, and then they are released. There is no policy of holding people as bargaining chips."

But Iraqi human rights groups say they have documented dozens of cases similar to Moayad's, in which family members who are not accused of any crimes have been detained for weeks or even months and told that they would be released only when a wanted relative surrenders to U.S. forces.

"We have many cases of Americans going to a house looking for someone, and when they can't find him, they take another family member in his place," said Bassem al-Rubaie, director of the Council of Legal Defense Care, a group of Iraqi lawyers that has been campaigning for prisoner rights. "This has been going on since the early days of the American occupation."

ARRESTED 'BY MISTAKE' In a recent report, the International Committee of the Red Cross quoted military intelligence officers as saying that between "70 and 90 percent" of the nearly 8,000 Iraqis detained by occupation forces had been arrested "by mistake." In some cases, the report found, U.S. troops held people for several months after they had been cleared of wrongdoing.

Human rights groups first criticized the United States for detaining the relatives of wanted Iraqis in November, when U.S. forces arrested the wife and daughter of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Hussein's longtime deputies. After Hussein was captured last year, al-Douri became the most wanted man in Iraq, and Washington put a $10 million bounty on his head.

Al-Douri's wife and daughter are still in U.S. custody, although rights monitors say they have not been charged with any crime. "Taking hostages is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions — in other words, a war crime," Manhattan-based Human Rights Watch wrote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in January.

The senior U.S. military official declined to discuss the detention of al-Douri's relatives, saying it is a "special case with very unusual circumstances." In the past, U.S. officials had likened the detentions to those of a material witness who is held for questioning.