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Red Cross complained of prison abuse early

From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The International Committee of the Red Cross began discussing allegations of prison abuse of Iraqi prisoners in February, at which point Secretary of State Colin Powell began raising the issue with other Cabinet members, State Department officials have said.

Powell "wanted to make sure the concerns of the [Red Cross] were addressed," and "the administration was open to the recommendations of the [Red Cross]," a senior official said Thursday.

Powell said he spoke Thursday with Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger and assured him the U.S. government is dealing with the charges of abuse of the Iraqi prisoners.

"We will answer in a comprehensive way," Powell told reporters.

Antonella Notari, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said its employees had been visiting Abu Ghraib prison for some time and had been reporting on their findings and recommendations in writing to U.S. authorities.

One State Department official said Powell exerted pressure on the administration regarding the issue of releasing some of the Iraqi detainees.

"He said, 'We have to address this if we want to advance the political process.' He said we have to release the ones that can be released, and for those that can't, decide what to do with them," the official said, noting this was the same position Powell took regarding detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

This official said that in recent months the United States began to hear charges of abuse of Iraqi prisoners from Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy who has been working in Iraq on the political transition. Brahimi also engaged Robert Blackwell, the White House point man on Iraq.

Powell first became aware of the prison abuse allegations in January, when they were reported "internally" throughout the U.S. government, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

But the Red Cross had been raising questions about possible abuse before that, Boucher said.

"An investigation was started within a day of these initial internal reports, and then two days after that it was announced to the media that we had received allegations, we were investigating them," Boucher said.

"So certainly since that time we've all known that there have been allegations of abuse at this particular location." (January report)

Boucher said several government departments had received the reports from the Red Cross, and the State Department made sure the recommendations were circulated throughout the U.S. government.

"We've always listened to the Red Cross," Boucher said. "We've always had meetings with them at various levels throughout this department ... and we listen to those concerns and make sure that the appropriate people in the U.S. government are aware of them.

"And, as I said, this has been something the whole U.S. government has worked on."


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