BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's main Sunni Arab political party on Wednesday demanded an international investigation into allegations that security forces illegally detained and tortured suspected insurgents at secret jails in Baghdad.
Five U.S. Marines were killed in a firefight in the western Iraqi town of Obeidi near the Syrian border, the military said. That brought to 2,079 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In Baghdad, Omar Heikal of the Iraqi Islamic Party said it was now clear that majority Shiites in the U.S.-backed government were trying to suppress minority Sunnis ahead of the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
"Our information indicates that this is not the only place where torture is taking place," he said, reading an official party statement. The party "calls on the United Nations, the Arab League and humanitarian bodies to denounce these clear human rights violations, and we demand a fair, international probe so that all those who are involved in such practices will get their just punishment."
In a related development, at least four Iraqi policemen were treated at Yarmouk Hospital for injuries they said were suffered in beatings by men who identified themselves as Interior Ministry commandos after they were stopped Monday on patrol in the Dora neighborhood of southwest Baghdad.
An Associated Press photographer and an AP Television News cameraman saw long, thin black and blue bruises and welts on their backs and shoulders. None of them appeared to be so seriously injured as to require hospitalization.
The men were visibly nervous and refused to speak in detail about their ordeal, fearing reprisals. They told AP journalists that they were blindfolded and taken to an unknown location but were released after the "Americans interfered." They refused to give their names or say more.
The AP tried to get comment Wednesday from the Interior Ministry were unsuccessful because the ministry had closed for the day and senior officials had switched off their mobile phones.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari confirmed that more than 173 Interior Ministry prisoners were found malnourished and possibly tortured by government security forces at a Baghdad lockup Sunday.
Al-Jaafari's comments came a day after an Interior Ministry official said an investigation will be opened into allegations that its officers tortured suspects detained in connection with the insurgency.
"I was informed that there were 173 detainees held at an Interior Ministry prison and they appear to be malnourished. There is also some talk that they were subjected to some kind of torture," al-Jaafari told reporters.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said U.S. and Iraqi forces went into the facility in Baghdad suspecting that individuals there might not have been appropriately handled or managed, and "they found things that concerned them."
Whitman said Wednesday he had no information about further investigations of Iraqi Ministry of Interior prisons.
Tariq al-Hashimi, the secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, held up photos of the bodies of people who appear to have been subjected to torture and said: "This is what your Sunni brothers are being subjected too." The photos were later determined to have been from an incident last summer in which Sunni detainees died after being locked in an Interior Ministry van in 100-degree-plus weather.
He said his group had sent complaints in the past the government, but without response.
"We told them that if you don't have information, then where are our brothers who were kidnapped by people wearing your uniforms, using your telecommunication equipment and driving your cars," he said.
He said that if the investigation proves that the interior minister was involved, then he should resign. He also said the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, should "condemn these acts and stop covering" for the Shiite minister.
Saad Farhan, a 40-year-old trader in Ramadi, said his brother and cousin were detained by Interior Ministry forces and that some detainees were taken to building raided by U.S. forces.
"Some government officials want to keep the Sunnis away from the next elections by terrorizing us," he said. "We believe that Iran's agents are behind it because normal and genuine Iraqis never do this."
Many Sunnis suspect Shiites of being allies of Iran.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq issued a report Monday depicting a bleak picture of the Iraqi legal system.
"Massive security operations by the Iraqi police and Special Forces continue to disregard instructions announced in August 2005 by the Ministry of the Interior to safeguard individual guarantees during search and detention operations," the report said.
On Wednesday, U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte met with al-Jaafari, but neither spoke to the media.
In addition to the five Americans killed Wednesday in Obeidi, a reporter embedded with The New York Times said 11 other Marines were wounded there.
U.S. and Iraqi forces are conducting a sweep through an insurgent stronghold near the Syrian border, where troops have found dozens of explosive booby traps. The five dead Marines may have detonated one of those devices in a farm house, the Times reported.
"Intelligence reports indicate that the strong resistance to the Iraqi and coalition push into the city is due in large part to the fact that insurgents believe they are trapped and have nowhere else to go," the military said of the operation in Obeidi, 185 miles west of Baghdad.
Three U.S. Army soldiers were killed Tuesday in a roadside bombing near Baghdad, the U.S. command said. A U.S. Marine was also killed Tuesday by a car bomb near Karmah, 50 miles west of Baghdad, another statement said.
The U.S.-Iraqi attack on Obeidi was the latest stage of an offensive to clear al-Qaida-led insurgents from towns and cities in the Euphrates River valley near the border with Syria and seal off an infiltration route for foreign fighters.
U.S. officials have said the Euphrates Valley campaign is also aimed at encouraging Sunni Arabs to vote in the parliamentary elections without fear of reprisals. The Bush administration hopes a successful election will encourage many in the Sunni community to abandon the insurgency.
Officials from the European Union on Wednesday ruled out sending an observer mission to Iraq for the elections because it is "too dangerous and our people could not do their job in a proper way," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
Also Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that U.S. troops used white phosphorous as a weapon against insurgent strongholds in the battle of Fallujah a year ago. Lt. Col. Barry Venable denied an Italian TV news report that the spontaneously flammable material was used against civilians.
Venable said white phosphorous shells are a standard weapon and are not banned by any international weapons convention to which the U.S. is a signatory.
Use of white phosphorous is not banned but is covered by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons. The protocol prohibits use of the substance as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations and in air attacks against military forces in civilian areas. The United States is not a signatory to the convention.
The battle for Fallujah was the most intense and deadly fight of the war, after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.
Also Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair ruled out sending more of his country's troops to Iraq to seal the porous border with Iran. His government has recently accused Iran's Revolutionary Guard of giving Iraqi insurgents bomb-making technology, and has said that weapons and fighters are smuggled across the poorly protected border.
Britain has about 8,500 troops in Iraq.