The New York Times
June 12, 2003

U.S. Investigating Mystery Death of Iraqi Being Held as a Prisoner


WASHINGTON, June 11 _ Military investigators have been called in to determine whether United States troops were responsible for the death of an Iraqi prisoner of war last week, defense officials said today.

One military official said tonight there were indications of "foul play" in the death of a 52-year-old Iraqi whose corpse was found last Friday at a prisoner camp run by the First Marine Division near Nasiriya.

The official emphasized it was unclear whether American soldiers, other prisoners or something else was to blame, and that a preliminary autopsy was inconclusive.

"There are unusual circumstances that warrant this death be further investigated," another defense official said tonight.

Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of allied forces in Iraq, has been briefed on the incident, officials said. The inquiry, by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is the first involving the death of a prisoner in American custody in Iraq. British authorities are investigating the deaths of two Iraqis under British control, and accusations that British forces tortured Iraqi prisoners.

Officials said the prisoner was not among the 55 Iraqis who are most wanted by American authorities, more than 30 of whom have been killed or captured.

Details about the Iraqi prisoner's death and the inquiry were few. The United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., issued a two-paragraph statement saying the prisoner had been in custody since May 3 and that an investigation was under way.

The command did not say how the prisoner died, who he was or whether he had been cooperating with American interrogators. It was also unclear whether he was a military officer or a civilian, possibly a former government official.

Nor would the officials explain why the military was only acknowledging the prisoner's death five days after he died. "There's nothingU.S. Investigating Mystery Deat.ems sinister here," one official said.

A military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the prisoner was seized and given a cursory medical examination in Tallil on May 3. He was moved to Nasiriya on June 3 and questioned by military interrogators the next day.

On June 5, the prisoner complained of "health problems," including diarrhea, and died the next day, the official said. It was unclear whether the prisoner's illness or injuries were related to the interrogation or whether other prisoners, suspecting he had cooperated with the Americans, may have attacked him.

Summoning the naval investigative service indicates the seriousness of the matter, and the grave consequences if American troops are found to have killed a prisoner, officials said. If the inquiry finds that Americans committed criminal violations, they would be subject to a court-martial proceedings.

As of Tuesday, 2,045 Iraqis were being held in two camps, a spokesman for the Central Command said. Of those, 378 are considered "enemy prisoners of war," former military officers or government officials. The remainder are mostly looters and other suspected criminals.

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