BAGHDAD -- Two detainees may have been tortured to death at the hands of Iraqi security forces, the head of a commission investigating allegations of abuse at Iraqi jails said yesterday.
The precise cause of their deaths is unclear, said Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Rosh Shawais, who is heading the investigation, in an interview. Detainees told investigators that the two alleged victims were tortured or starved to death, while prison officials say the pair died of natural causes.
In all, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters, at least 120 prisoners allegedly have been abused at the hands of Iraqi security forces, more than previously disclosed by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. As many as 18 prisoners may have died while in custody at a Baghdad detention center first identified last month in a Los Angeles Times report.
Shawais, an ethnic Kurd, said he is continuing to investigate reports of other deaths.
The new allegations have surfaced at the end of a sometimes violent political campaign leading up to tomorrow's parliamentary vote. Yesterday, Mizhir Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab candidate for parliament, was killed and a prominent Shi'ite candidate was targeted in an assassination attempt.
Meanwhile, four US soldiers died yesterday after their patrol struck a roadside bomb northwest of the capital.
Reports of prisoner abuse in Iraqi-run jails first surfaced last month after US soldiers raided a compound in the Jadiriya section of Baghdad and discovered scores of men showing signs of hunger and torture.
Officials last week discovered another detention center where at least 13 prisoners showed signs of physical abuse. On Monday, a Sunni politician released a DVD purportedly showing tortured detainees at a third facility, though the allegation could not be confirmed.
Shawais has presented a report to the prime minister detailing preliminary findings regarding alleged torture at the first compound discovered last month. He said his committee will finish its final report before the end of the year. He requested an extension of the deadline in order to widen the scope of the investigation.
The allegations of abuses of suspected Sunni Arabs by security forces that are dominated by Shi'ite Muslims have become intertwined with the fierce political campaign, which came to an official halt yesterday to give voters a day to consider their choices.
A secular coalition led by former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, which is running against the Shi'ite-led government, has alleged human rights conditions in Iraq are now as bad as under Saddam Hussein.
Jaafari, at a luncheon organized for journalists, vowed yesterday that his government would seriously examine the allegations. ''We should provide prisoners with facilities that are up to international standards," he said.
But he and his deputies also tried to minimize the issue, with one adviser arguing that Iraqis were far more concerned about bread-and-butter issues such as jobs, electricity, and water than the prisoner abuse scandal. Jaafari likened the reports of torture and starvation to allegations of prisoner abuse by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, arguing, ''It's a matter of individuals, not the government."
However, Khalilzad brushed aside attempts by some officials in the Jaafari government to downplay the torture allegations. ''It was far worse than slapping around," the US ambassador said, calling on the Iraqi government to speed up the investigation.
''We are very committed to looking at all the facilities," he said. ''It's unacceptable for this kind of abuse to take place."
Dulaimi, the slain Sunni politician, was gunned down as he was driving with a relative in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi. The relative was severely wounded.
Dulaimi was described as an active and dedicated political leader and Arab nationalist who took part in a recent conference on Iraq's future held in Cairo.
''Those who killed him are the enemies of Sunnis," said Aboud Hamadi, a relative of the victim.