Nov. 14, 2005 — -- Two former Iraqi detainees tell ABC News in an exclusive interview that they were repeatedly tortured by U.S. forces seeking information about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.
Thahee Sabbar and Sherzad Khalid are two of eight men who, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the group Human Rights First, are suing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The men claim they were tortured for months, in violation of the U.S. Constitution and international law.
Torture has been the center of controversy lately. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War -- has sparked a heated debate after his proposed amendment to ban torture was reportedly the subject of intense lobbying by Vice President Dick Cheney, who sought an exemption for CIA officers.
When asked about it, President Bush said, "Our country is at war, and our government has the obligation to protect the American people ... Any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture."
But after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal -- according to the Pentagon's own investigations -- it is irrefutable that U.S. forces have tortured detainees, many of whom claim they had no involvement at all with al Qaeda or the insurgency in Iraq, but were nonetheless arrested by U.S. soldiers and physically abused.
Sabbar and Khalid say they are two such men.
Khalid -- a 34-year-old married father of four children -- says he worked in the grocery business until July 17, 2003, when U.S. soldiers interrupted a business meeting he was having with Thahee Sabbar, who sold sugar and bananas. U.S. soldiers, they say, interrupted their meeting and arrested them.
"I was very surprised when they arrested me," Khalid told ABC News through a translator. "They did not give any reason why they were taking me. And we asked them, but no answer. The only answer was severe beating."
Khalid says U.S. soldiers tied his hands behind his back, put a hood over his head, and beat him to the point of breaking his tooth and bloodying his nose. Sabbar claims he suffered similar treatment, with soldiers dislocating his shoulder.
Khalid told ABC News that U.S. soldiers at one point threatened him with live lions.
"They took us to a cage -- an animal cage that had lions in it within the Republican Palace," he said. "And they threatened us that if we did not confess, they would put us inside the cage with the lions in it. It scared me a lot when they got me close to the cage, and they threatened me. And they opened the door and they threatened that if I did not confess, that they were going to throw me inside the cage. And as the lion was coming closer, they would pull me back out and shut the door, and tell me, 'We will give you one more chance to confess.' And I would say, 'Confess to what?'"
Inside the Republican Palace -- the site of Saddam's former office -- Sabbar says troops taunted him with a mock execution.
"I found the other prisoners who had come before me there in the line beside me mocking, in a way as to make it a mock execution," he said. "They all stood up, those of us who could stand up. They directed their weapons towards us. And they shot, shot towards our heads and chests. And when the shots sounded, some of us lost consciousness. Some started to cry. Some lost control of their bladders. And they were laughing the whole time."
After a night in jail at the Republican Palace, Khalid says he was taken to the prison at the Baghdad airport where the torture continued.
"They put us in individual cells," he said. "And before entering those cells, they formed two teams of American soldiers -- one to the right, one to the left -- about 10 to 15 each American soldiers. And they were holding wooden sticks. It was like a hallway, like a passage. And they made us go that hallway while shouting at us as we were walking through and hitting us with the wooden sticks. They were beating us severely."
Khalid says U.S. soldiers deprived him of food, water, and sleep. He claims he began to suffer from stomach ulcers, but was denied medical care.
All the while, Khalid says, soldiers routinely asked for information about Saddam's whereabouts: "I said to him, 'How would I know where Saddam is?' And I thought that he was kidding me. And that's why I laughed. And he beat me again."
Khalid refuses to talk about one other allegation. In his legal complaint, he holds U.S. soldiers responsible for "Sexually assaulting and humiliating [him] ... by grabbing his buttocks and simulating anal rape by pressing a water bottle against the seat of his pants; putting a hand inside [his] ... pants and grabbing his buttocks during a severe beating ... (and) brandishing a long wooden pole and threatening to sodomize him on the spot and every night of his detention."
According to Sabbar, U.S. soldiers used Taser guns and rubber bullets to control detainees.
"They had another kind of torture using electrical shocks, pointing a hand gun towards you that shocks you and causes you to lose consciousness for a while," he said. "That was one of the methods at the airport [jail]. Or use rubber bullets that end up hurting or burning the area where it hits you, and very painful ones."
Sabbar ended up at Abu Ghraib, the detention center where the abuse of detainees was captured in the now-infamous photographs that shocked the world. However, he was not held inside one of the cell blocks, but rather outside in a courtyard.
"We entered Abu Ghraib and there the behavior of the soldiers was different -- a different type of torture. They put us in different groups. The lack of food -- we could not eat as much as we did before. And if they gave us food, it certainly is spoiled most of the time, so either you die from not eating, or you have to be taken to the emergency [room]."
Sabbar also alleges troops mistreated the Koran, an egregious affront to Islam.
"They would give us Korans as well as the holy Bible, and they would come on purpose to walk or step on the holy Koran, and we opposed or -- protested that. Or they would take it ... and throw it away in front of everybody, the holy Koran. And this was painful to us."
Khalid -- who says he still suffers severe back pain -- was released in September 2003; Sabbar in January 2004. As is the case with many detainees, no charges were filed against them.
As for the torture allegations, both men know it is basically their word against the U.S. military.
"What I am telling you is not from imagination," said Sabbar. "This is my reality, and my pain that I suffered."
"There's some serious allegations in there," said retired Lt .Col. Robert Maginnis, now an Army consultant. "If those, in fact, took place, investigations should ensue and the appropriate people should be punished. ... I don't doubt that we made many mistakes. That's characteristic of the fog [of war] and the confusion of the battlefield."
Human Rights First and the ACLU -- the groups bringing the lawsuit on their behalf -- allege such torture was part of the Pentagon playbook.
"They were basically told that this was a different type of war, and the rules didn't apply anymore," said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero.
"What we have done here is undermining our efforts to win hearts and minds and undermining our efforts to gather strategic intelligence so we can successfully fight and win, not only the current counter-insurgency, but the war on terror at large ," said Deborah Pearlstein of Human Rights First. "This is against our national security interests in the most immediate way."
Both the Pentagon and the Justice Department acknowledged the two men were prisoners but refused to comment on their allegations.
When the lawsuit was first filed, the Pentagon said in a written statement, "We vigorously dispute any assertion or implication that the Department of Defense approved of, sanctioned, or condoned as a matter of policy detainee abuse," but it did not address the specific allegations.
Some conservative legal scholars question if the case as a question of law has much standing. "The facts that they allege really do not tie these horrific events -- these instances of torture and beating and sleep deprivation and dietary manipulation -- to the secretary of defense," says Douglas Kmiec, a professor at Pepperdine Law School and a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration.
Also problematic, Kmiec says, are the notions of non-Americans suing for rights violated under the U.S. Constitution, or trying to enforce international treaties in a U.S. court. "As a matter of legal theory it's a very difficult case to prove and to convince a court that it has the jurisdiction to actually rule on the question in the first place."
Khalid and Sabbar say they believe their case will prevail, because they say they believe in the U.S. justice system.
"Because it's truth," Khalid said. "And when the American courts will hear my case … I am sure that the American justice [system] will believe that."
Avery Miller and Camille Elhassani contributed to this report.