BAGHDAD—U.S.-led coalition forces raided Abdul Rahman Mohammed Saleh al Dulame's home in northern Baghdad three times this summer, and then arrested the low-level Ministry of Trade employee on a bogus tip that he'd been a member of Saddam Hussein's personal paramilitary force.
Al Dulame, 36, spent three months in detention, during which he said he was poorly fed and beaten for leading prisoner demonstrations. His family didn't know where he was until he was released in September. Since his release, he's been unable to trace other detainees he met while imprisoned.
"I am not afraid to say it, frankly. I hate the Americans, my daughter hates the Americans, my neighbors hate the Americans," said al Dulame, sitting in his living room in an olive brown traditional robe, his jet black hair and mustache neatly trimmed, his eyes on a portrait of his late father, a tribal sheik.
With the Red Cross gone, detainees' families are increasingly unable to get basic information about them, human rights agencies say. And as U.S. troops crack down on armed opponents in Iraq, the coalition's inability to deal with a growing number of detainees is breeding hostility and resistance.
"Ask my neighbors. When they saw me being arrested and they knew I am just a simple man, they became angry," al Dulame said. "Three times they raided my house. Every time, they turned everything upside down. They broke the doors and stole money and jewelry."
U.S. officials didn't respond to requests over days for information about the detainees and the conditions of their detention. Much of the information about them comes from aid organizations that are attempting, in the absence of the Red Cross, to help Iraqis locate missing relatives.
Many of the detainees are Saddam sympathizers or were caught with weapons likely to be used against U.S. and other coalition forces.
But others are guilty of relatively minor offenses such as breaking curfew or, like al Dulame, are victims of false accusations who eventually are released, but not before months of frustration. Humanitarian agencies said they hear repeated complaints of mistreatment and lack of information and respect for basic human rights.
"These things add up," said Matthew Chandler, of Newberg, Ore., a volunteer with Christian Peacekeeper Teams, a small Chicago-based organization that has about six volunteers in Baghdad. "Most people are not going to pick up a (rocket-propelled grenade), but maybe they've made friends with soldiers and know their routines. These sorts of things seem insignificant to the coalition, but they really matter to Iraqis. The word gets out through large families and neighborhoods."
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior American military commander in Iraq, has said there are about 5,000 detainees, but Chandler and other volunteers with Christian Peacekeeper Teams said coalition officials working with the Ministry of Justice told them earlier this month that there are 6,500 detainees.
The detainees are primarily at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, a notorious penal facility under Saddam, and at Camp Bucca near the southern Iraqi town of Umm Qasr, an eight-hour drive from Baghdad. A third penal facility, Camp Cropper near the Baghdad airport, was closed last month after coalition officials acknowledged that conditions there had become unacceptable, and Chandler said he's been told Camp Bucca also may close.
The coalition bureaucracy for dealing with individual cases is overloaded, aid workers say. Each detainee's case must funnel through a panel of three coalition officials, meaning that even the innocent must wait months to be released. Family visits are badly backlogged as well.
"Six families a day get to visit detainees on three days of each week," said Chandler. "If you want to go to Camp Bucca in Umm Qasr right now, the soonest you can get a visit is February. When all the prisoners are transferred, it'll be more like June."
The problems are exacerbated by the departure of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which pulled its foreign representatives out of Iraq after a suicide bomber destroyed its Baghdad headquarters on Oct. 27.
"They are the one organization fully tasked with the detainee issue," said Cassandra Nelson, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, a nonprofit emergency relief organization working on American rebuilding projects in northern and southern Iraq.
"They have the language experts, they have the legal experts to act in this capacity. Without them taking the lead on this, the human rights of Iraqis are not being met. We're talking about importing democracy, and this is one of the most fundamental rights."
The Red Cross said its local staff would continue to track detainees. But the local employees are nowhere to be found. A security guard at the bombed-out headquarters said 20 to 30 people a day show up to ask about detained relatives, but "the Iraqi staff are staying at home." Requests for comment from the Red Cross, via cell phone in Baghdad and repeated e-mails to ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, went unanswered.
Families seeking to visit or find their relatives crowd around the gate at the Abu Ghraib prison. A makeshift sign in Arabic and English declares that no prisoner information will be released, that a prisoner number is required to make an appointment and that numbers are being given out in a shopping mall in the Mansour district. No one seems to know where, however.
"My son Aws Sami Azeez al Obeidi has been here from the 27th of June," said Intsar Galeel Ibrahim, 45, who's been waiting outside for days trying to get an appointment to see him. "He has done nothing. He is a student. His father is a colonel in the Iraqi army; his brother is a captain. We are a clean family."
Another woman clutched an unofficial photocopy of a judge's order that her son, Nadam Adnan Karem, be released from prison. The document had a judge's name from the courthouse in Karkh, but no date. A soldier refused to accept it.
A third woman, Nadema Kareem Hamid, 60, complained bitterly. "I am angry. I have two sons here. I have not seen either," she said. "Bush said he would free us, but the Americans have only taken away our children."
Even coalition connections don't help. A coalition translator, after weeks of inquiries, managed to get a prisoner number for a neighbor, Muhanad Abdul a'al Aboud, who was detained on Sept. 14. But even with the number, the translator was told to come back in December.
"It's sad and frustrating," said an American staff sergeant, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. "They just have to be patient. With elections, with water, with electricity, with their relatives. We're trying. There's a huge backlog, and there's nothing I can do."
When a woman complained to him that her appointment to see her son was a month away, the sergeant told her: "It's two months, three months now before you can get an appointment. To get one in one month, that's very good."
Well-established local groups, such as the Human Rights Organization in Iraq, have volunteered to step in where the Red Cross has left a gap, but coalition officials said the Red Cross is the only agency authorized to handle detainees.
Coalition officials have also told some nonprofit organizations that they won't release detainee lists because they're being sold on the street.
For al Dulame, the Americans still can turn the hostility around. While he said he hates the Americans, he also blamed Iraqis for passing around bad information to settle grudges. And he wanted to thank an American soldier he met at Camp Bucca.
"His name was Sergeant Bill. He was merciful; he helped the children, the old people, the women detainees. Some of the soldiers wanted to have a relationship with Iraqis. They said we are not responsible for this situation," al Dulame said. "They said, `We want to go home to our families, too.' "
(Fan reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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