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US wants safeguards before jail handovers

Iraq must improve care, military says

BAGHDAD -- The US military will not transfer control of jails or individual detainees to Iraqi authorities until they demonstrate higher standards of care, an American official said yesterday, two weeks after the discovery of 120 abused Iraqi prisoners.

Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said detention facilities in Iraq will be transferred over time to Iraqi officials, but they must first show that the rights of detainees are safeguarded and that international law on the treatment of prisoners is being followed.

''A specific timeline for doing this is difficult to project at this stage with so many variables," said Johnson, a military spokesman. ''The Iraqis are committed to doing this right and will not rush to failure. The transition will be based on meeting standards, not on a timeline." He was commenting on a New York Times article yesterday that was the first to report prison facilities would not be handed over until Iraqi officials improved standards.

Prisons have been one of the sore points between the Shi'ite Muslim majority and Sunni Arabs, a long-dominant minority that saw its power evaporate with Saddam Hussein's ouster. US officials are pushing to heal the rift as a way to weaken support for the Sunni-led insurgency.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said earlier this month that at least 120 abused prisoners had been found inside two jails controlled by the Shi'ite-run Iraqi Interior Ministry.

Sunni Arabs have long alleged abuse and torture by Interior Ministry security forces. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr contends torture allegations have been exaggerated by people who sympathize with insurgents.

Johnson said that in preparation for the eventual handover of prisons, the US Department of Justice is training Iraqi prison guards. About 300 have completed the course, he said.

In a scandal involving the US military early last year, photographs surfaced showing US soldiers abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison on Baghdad's western outskirts. The scandal led to convictions for nine Army reservists.

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