AMSTERDAM, Nov 18: A report that Dutch military intelligence abused prisoners in Iraq in 2003 has prompted calls for an investigation, as opposition politicians alleged a government cover-up just days before a general election.
Leading Dutch daily Volkskrant said intelligence officers had abused dozens of prisoners by hosing them with water to keep them awake, exposing them to bright light and blasting them with loud noises during heavy-handed interrogations.
A defence ministry spokesman said the reports were being investigated. He expected the government to make a statement later in the day.
''If these facts are true, they are shocking,'' Christian Democrat Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told reporters as he entered his office for the regular cabinet meeting yesterday.
Balkenende supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and sent Dutch troops to the country in 2003. He withdrew the troops two years later as violence escalated and opposition parties -- which had supported the initial engagement -- grew sceptical.
Although there was originally a broad political consensus in favour of involvement in Iraq, the abuse reports could prove damaging to Balkenende -- leading his Labour rivals in opinion polls just five days before a general election on Nov. 22.
''There is a smell of a cover-up coming off this,'' Labour leader Wouter Bos was quoted as telling Dutch radio.
Femke Halsema, leader of the opposition Green Left, told Dutch television: ''We take it very, very seriously. We can probably all remember the situation in Abu Ghraib.
''If this has indeed been hushed up since 2003, then we must look into what happened.'' Since photographs of prisoner abuse by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq first emerged, scandals have also erupted in Britain and Germany over the behaviour of their troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The alleged mistreatment took place in November 2003 in the Al Muthanna province in southern Iraq where about 1,300 Dutch troops were stationed, Volkskrant said.
''Things took place which don't comply with the rules,'' the newspaper quoted Defence Ministry spokesman Joop Veen as saying, adding he did not know whether Defence Minister Henk Kamp was made aware of what happened. ''It was a long time ago and you can't remember everything,'' he added.
Dutch soldiers are currently involved in a NATO peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, and this year agreed to send further troops to the area after a protracted parliamentary debate.
Despite a well-equipped military and a tradition of punching above their weight on the international stage, the Dutch have been nervous of risky military engagements since the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.
Lightly-armed Dutch U.N. soldiers, lacking international air support, were forced to yield the Srebrenica enclave to Bosnian Serb forces, who then killed up to 8,000 Muslims who had sought protection from the Dutch troops.