BAGHDAD - The US military is abusing its United Nations mandate in Iraq by detaining thousands of people without due process of law, a senior UN official said.
The Iraqi government installed after the US invasion of 2003 is also guilty of major human rights abuses, including holding people without charge in secret jails "littered" across the country, John Pace, human rights chief for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), said.
Referring to accusations of corruption among Iraqi justice officials and police, Pace said illegal detentions were fuelling rather than curbing revolt.
"There is no question that terrorism has to be addressed. But we are equally sure that the remedies being applied ... are not the best way of eliminating terrorism," Pace said. "More terrorists are being created than are being eliminated."
Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also voiced concern about mass detentions without charge, which US commanders say are a legitimate response to security threats under UN Security Council Resolution 1546, their mandate for occupying Iraq.
But in some of the strongest UN comments to date, Pace said in an interview on Sunday that the system, including the pattern, duration and conditions of detention, were "not consistent with what is foreseen in 1546" and complained of a "total breakdown" in individuals' rights.
Pace said that, apart from prisoners serving court-ordered sentences in prisons run by the Justice Ministry, there were between 1,600 and 2,000 people being held in up to eight known facilities run by the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
But there were also others in unofficial facilities in former palaces "littered" around Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, as well as roughly 14,000 held in US military facilities like Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.
"All except those held by the Ministry of Justice are, technically speaking, held against the law because the Ministry of Justice is the only authority that is empowered by law to detain, to hold anybody in prison," Pace said.
"Essentially none of these people have any real recourse to protection and therefore we speak ... of a total breakdown in the protection of the individual in this country.
"It's very rare to get judges ordering you to be released and effectively the police respecting that order.
"We have cases also where the judge who has ordered a group of people to be released, about 50-60 people, and the police, the Interior Ministry simply refuses," Pace said.
"We have another case in another part of the country where the judge was actually the subject of reprisal for having found people not getting, as ordered, their release.
"The judge is now in jail," he said, without giving details.
The US-backed government, dominated by the long-oppressed Shi'ite majority, has launched an inquiry after US forces last month found about 170 Sunni men in a secret Interior Ministry bunker in Baghdad, some of whom showed signs of torture.
Pace said the Justice Ministry was also failing detainees.
"The judiciary has a lot to answer for in this country. It is really not carrying out its duties," he said, adding that bribes were sometimes paid for jobs in the judiciary and police.
"This is not denied," Pace said. "This is symptomatic of the corruption problems in this country and stands in the way of any kind of rule of law."