The Bush administration and the Iraqi government are once more on the receiving end of international outrage following the discovery of a torture dungeon linked to the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, and the admission that American soldiers used the deadly chemical white phosphorous in its assault on Fallujah nearly a year ago, something the Bush administration had repeatedly denied.

The Nov. 17 discovery of 169 detainees, 166 of whom were Sunni Muslims, in the basement of an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad led many to draw parallels between the current situation and the worst aspects of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Some detainees had been beaten, electrically shocked and showed signs of starvation. Some had chunks of their flesh stripped away.

In recent months the number of mass arrests in Iraq has been rising. Prisoners and their families report a denial of due process, and many prisoners languish in jail without any charges. The fact that the prisoners held in the Interior Ministry basement were mainly Sunni threatened to increase sectarian strife between the minority Sunni population and the current government, which is largely controlled by Shiite religious parties.

The day before the revelation about the Interior Ministry torture center, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the UN “has repeatedly expressed concern about ongoing human rights violations in Iraq, and specifically the lack of due process for detainees and abuses against them.” UN officials have also worried that while hundreds of detainees had been released, their numbers still continue to grow because of mass arrests and military operations.

After the torture center came to light, and in the wake of a statement by the Iraqi government that it was investigating, Annan’s spokesperson said that the secretary-general was happy to hear about the probe. Later, however, UN officials decided that the government probe was not enough.

Louise Arbour, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, called Nov. 18 for an international investigation. In a statement, Arbour said, “in light of the apparently systemic nature and magnitude of that problem, and the importance of public confidence in any inquiry, I urge the authorities to consider calling for an international inquiry.” She added that she was also concerned with other reports from across Iraq, saying that large numbers of citizens are incarcerated despite judicial release orders.

On Nov. 29, a UN spokesperson said that the organization’s senior human rights representative in Iraq, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, has pressed the Iraqi government on the issue of detainees on more than one occasion. The spokesperson said that Qazi had “brought up … directly to Iraqi officials, including the defense minister and the interior minister, the issues of human rights violations that have been reported to take place in some of the detention centers,” and called for “structural change.”

Meanwhile, in the wake of a broadcast by RAI, Italy’s main television network, of the documentary “Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre,” which claimed that U.S. troops used deadly white phosphorus, the Bush administration flip-flopped on the issue of the chemical’s use. The documentary showed civilians who had been burned to death by the chemical.

Many have found this also to be highly reminiscent of the Hussein days, when chemical weapons were used against the Iraqi population.

White phosphorus, when used in bombs, spreads into the air and ignites, causing severe burns and death.

Originally, the Bush administration claimed the phosphorus had only been used for illumination, not to inflict casualties. However, reports from the military contradicted this, and the administration was forced to reverse its position. It admitted to using the chemicals, and that they “could not rule out the possibility” that civilians were hit. However, the administration denies that they are illegal, saying that white phosphorus does not count as a chemical weapon.

Speaking on the “Democracy Now” radio show, Peter Kaiser, a spokesperson for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said, “Chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.”

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