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U.S. Troops Empty Detention Centers In Iraq

An ID card is placed around the neck of an Iraqi being released from a U.S. detention center prior to a reconciliation ceremony. In his hand is the Koran. There are slightly more than than 10,000 Iraqis in U.S. custody.
An ID card is placed around the neck of an Iraqi being released from a U.S. detention center prior to a reconciliation ceremony. In his hand is the Koran. There are slightly more than than 10,000 Iraqis in U.S. custody.
BAGHDAD -- The heavy green door of a holding cell at Camp Cropper opens and the men within exit and form two single lines in the dimly lit corridor.

First out is prisoner Jasim Abed Hassan, a policeman arrested last year by U.S. troops for fomenting sectarian violence and attacking American forces while a member of an extremist Shi'ite militia. Next is Najim abd Ali, a Sunni auto-body repairman who was caught carrying an illegal weapon while in public.

Behind them are 18 other Iraqis detained last year for a variety of offenses and who served time behind the concrete barriers, concertina wire, and chain-linked fences of U.S. military detention centers such as Camp Cropper, Camp Bucca, and Camp Taji.

"It's strange that people like murderers are considered low threat," says 2nd Lieutenant Brent Beadle, a liaison officer for Iraqi Security Forces with the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, in northeast Baghdad. "If these guys are 'Green' releases" -- those considered unlikely to offend again -- "I'd hate to think what the 'Red' list looks like."

"There are people in this group that were charged with resisting arrest, assault on coalition forces, kidnapping, extortion, obstruction, weapons trafficking, intimidation, and sectarian murder," Beadle says.

New Rules

Under the bilateral Iraqi-U.S. Strategic Framework Agreement that came into effect January 1, all Iraqis in U.S. custody are to be released or transferred to Iraqi Security Force custody before the United States withdraws from the country by the end of 2011.

The number still in detention late last month was about 10,800, down considerably since November 2007, when 26,121 Iraqis were in U.S. custody for acts against American forces or violations of Iraq's security laws, according to statistics from Task Force 134, which is in charge of the U.S. detention program.

Those detentions were originally authorized under UN Resolution 1790, which allowed multinational forces in Iraq to take all necessary measures to help establish and maintain security and stability.

With the mandate's expiration and replacement by the Strategic Framework Agreement, U.S. troops can no longer detain Iraqis without a warrant except in life-threatening situations; those that are detained must be turned over to Iraqi Security Forces within 24 hours.

Theory and practice are two different things, however. With virtually all U.S. ground operations now conducted jointly -- and with U.S. troops in support roles -- new detentions are virtually an Iraqi affair.

In 2007, a total of 8,900 Iraqis in U.S. custody were released after passing a series of U.S. detention center review boards, TF-134 statistics show. As many as 12,000 returned to their families last year. New detentions by U.S. forces then averaged 45 a day. Releases per day were about 33. The average length of detention was 11 months.

Falling Behind

This year's target was originally 1,500 releases a month, but it's not being met.

"The release number per week fluctuates, but we reduced releases and transfers to about 750 per month at the request of the government of Iraq," TF-134 spokesman Captain William Powell says.

These former inmates of U.S. detention center in Iraq are among the roughly 750 being released each month.
"The change occurred in April," he says. "The government of Iraq asked us to slow down our releases to give the government of Iraq more time to review case files and look for or generate arrest warrants and detention orders" on some prisoners in U.S. custody.

First Sergeant Benjamin Rhode, of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, has supervised 20 prisoner releases since February. He says that, on average, one or two people taken from Camp Cropper for reuniting with their families at Iraqi Security Posts are taken into Iraqi custody at the last minute, either for re-detention or additional questioning.

Iraqi liaison officers, he says, usually notified U.S. troops before a release as to whom they intended to take custody of at release points.

No re-detentions occurs when Beadle shepherds an old Nissan bus to Iraqi security stations, where the former prisoners sign papers promising to obey Iraqi law and leaders from their neighborhoods promise to help make the pledges reality.

"I don't know what to say. I can't express it," Jasim tells a reporter as he steps off the bus in a Shi'ite section of Baghdad named Sha'ab. "I'm happy."

'We'll Watch Them'

Jasim, like others aboard the bus, clutches papers in his hands. They are certificates showing successful completion of courses at Camp Bucca, where he was originally held. The papers show he has attended a religious studies class in which a moderate Muslim cleric led inmates in discussions about the Koran and tried to help attendees overcome the Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian divide. Others hold papers showing completion of literacy classes or coursework in woodworking, brick making and equipment repair that are held at the different detention facilities.

As they step off the bus at designated release points, U.S. troops place placards with their names around their necks for easy identification for Iraqi forces. Plastic wrist restraints are cut off with scissors and blindfolds are tossed aside.

"This [release] is a good step," says an Iraqi national policeman who only identifies himself as Karar. "Some of them were not guilty and were detained without reason. But some deserved what they got."

"We'll watch them and maybe they won't get in trouble again," he adds.

Iraqis head for a Baghdad release ceremony.
The 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, supervises two detainee releases a month in their area of operation in northeast Baghdad. That schedule will continue despite the new U.S. pullback from Iraq cities. The battalion is headquartered at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shield, a multinational base which has not been ordered closed or transferred to full Iraqi Security Force control. But, Beadle says, the pullback mandate will affect future releases.

Under Iraqi government orders, the few U.S. troops remaining in urban areas aren't allowed on the streets during daylight hours, which means releases must now be conducted at night.

"This, unfortunately, has made detainee release a bit of a problem since we like to incorporate families, local sheikhs and our ISF partners," Beadle says. "Now with the order it has us developing a different course of action. We have to start our movements -- collection, transport, and transfer -- late at night...leaving the rest up to the Iraqi army and police.

"We still try and accommodate [detainees] by inviting families, [but] whether the IA/IP allows them to participate in a formal reconciliation ceremony remains to be seen."

Richard Tomkins was embedded with U.S. forces during the reporting for this article

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