US Army officials in Iraq tried to curtail the Red Cross' inspections of the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad after the international agency reported abuse of prisoners there last year, according to a senior army officer.
After the International Committee of the Red Cross observed abuses in one cellblock on two unannounced inspections in October and complained in writing on November 6, the military responded that inspectors should make appointments before visiting the cellblock. That area was the site of the worst abuses, said the New York Times.
The Red Cross report in November was the earliest formal evidence known to have been presented to the military's headquarters in Baghdad before January, when photographs of the abuses came to the attention of criminal investigators and prompted a broad investigation.
But the senior Army officer told the Times that the military did not start any criminal investigation before it replied to the Red Cross on December 24.
The Red Cross report was made after its inspectors witnessed or heard about such practices as holding Iraqi prisoners naked in dark concrete cells for several days at time and forcing them to wear women's underwear on their heads while being paraded and photographed.
Until now, the paper said, the Army had described its response on December 24 as evidence that the military was prompt in addressing Red Cross complaints, but it has declined to release the contents of the Army document, citing the tradition of confidentiality in dealing with the international agency.
An Army spokesman, the paper said, declined yesterday to characterize the letter or to discuss what it said about the Red Cross's access to the cellblock.
In an interview, however, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski,commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, whose soldiers guarded the prisoners, told the paper that despite the serious allegations in the Red Cross report, senior officers in Baghdad had treated it in "a light-hearted manner."
She said that she signed the Army's response on December 24, but that it had been drafted primarily by Army lawyers who reported to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top American commander in Iraq.
General Karpinski said she did not see the Red Cross complaint until late November, and questioned how the staff judge advocate for General Sanchez and his team of lawyers had dealt with the matter.
"It was an unusual routing because they had possession of it before I knew the letter existed," she said, claiming she did not see the Red Cross report until at least two weeks after it was submitted.
"We followed the rules, and we gave unrestricted access to the ICRC, and it validated our operations, actually," General Karpinski, who has been disciplined for her performance as commander at the prison, told the paper.
For several months in Iraq, Red Cross inspectors had exercised the right to drop in on Army-run prisons without notifying prison officials in advance.