As clock ticks, U.S. letting thousands of Iraqi prisoners go

Four Iraqi prisoners stand before a review panel that will decide whether they should be released from Camp Cropper, in Iraq. U.S. Marine Corps Major Jason Wild is at center.
Four Iraqi prisoners stand before a review panel that will decide whether they should be released from Camp Cropper, in Iraq. U.S. Marine Corps Major Jason Wild is at center. Corinne Reilly / Merced Sun-Star / MCT

BAGHDAD — In recent months, the American military has begun freeing many of the Iraqi prisoners it's been holding without charges and aims to release all of them by December 2009, according to U.S. military data and interviews with military officials.

In the five and a half years since the Iraq war began, U.S. troops have arrested and detained roughly 100,000 Iraqis, almost all of them without formal criminal charges. A year ago, 26,000 Iraqis were in American military detention, more than at any other point since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. About 17,000 remain imprisoned, but that number is dropping fast.

Brig. Gen. David Quantock, the U.S. deputy commanding general in charge of detainee operations in Iraq, told McClatchy that he thinks the vast majority of detainees who remain in custody aren't dangerous. Most of them participated in the insurgency because they were paid to do so or because they were threatened, he said. "I think it's a small number who are here because they really believe in the ideology of it."

Within the next 14 months, Quantock said, the military hopes to turn over a few thousand detainees who are considered the most dangerous for prosecution under Iraqi law. The rest will be released, he said.

American troops also have arrested about half as many Iraqis so far this year as they did in the first 10 months of last year, according to military data. On average, the U.S. now is releasing 50 detainees each day and arresting 24 new ones.

By next summer, Quantock said, the military plans to close Camp Bucca, the larger of its two remaining prisons in Iraq, which holds all but a few thousand of the Iraqis who are still in U.S. custody. A prison that the military is building to replace Bucca will be opened and turned over to Iraqi authorities within a year or so, Quantock said.

"We're obviously not going to be running detention facilities in Iraq forever," he said. "It reaches a point where you need a plan for a safe transition, and that's what we're doing now."

The U.S. must close its prisons in Iraq before American troops can leave, but the matter is complicated by difficult negotiations with the Iraqi government over a new agreement to govern the status of U.S. forces in Iraq.

The United Nations mandate that's allowed the United States to operate in Iraq will expire at the end of this year. What will happen after that, both to American military operations in the country and to the way the U.S. handles its prisoners, isn't clear.

The United States is hoping that Iraq's government will accept a draft agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in the country for at least three more years. Whether Iraq will approve the draft is uncertain at best, but if it does, the American military no longer would have the authority to arrest Iraqis without the Iraqi government's permission. Any Iraqis whom U.S. troops detained would have to be turned over to local authorities within 24 hours.

It's less certain what would happen to Iraqis who already are in U.S. custody. The proposed agreement calls for "all U.S. armed forces detainees (to) be released in a secure and orderly manner."

That doesn't mean that all Iraqis in American prisons here will be freed the day that the agreement takes effect, if it ever does, Quantock said. "It would mean that we would keep doing just what we're doing now: safely, gradually releasing those detainees who are ready and prosecuting (the rest)," he said.

In the last 10 months, the U.S. has freed nearly 16,000 Iraqi prisoners, according to figures the military provided. About 2,500 have been released in the last month, and the U.S. has announced plans to release at least 2,000 more in November.

"It's a gradual, net reduction," Quantock said. "That's what we're aiming for."

The military launched review boards in summer 2007 to begin working through its massive detainee population to decide who should be released.

Except for those whom the United States considers highly dangerous — about 5,000 of the 17,000 Iraqis who are still in custody fall into that category — each prisoner is supposed to appear before a review board at least every six months.

The boards are composed of three Americans from across the military branches. They review the detainees' files, talk with them a few minutes and decide whether they're suitable for release. About 40 percent of the detainees who go before review boards are recommended for release. The average detention time at release is 11 months.

"It's not about determining whether they are guilty or innocent," said Jason Wild, a Marine Corps major who's sat on review boards. "It's more about determining whether you think they'll do it again and whether they pose a threat at this point."

The military also has launched a number of programs meant to prepare detainees for freedom, most of them focusing on job skills.

"We can't hold these people forever," Quantock said. "All we can do is try to send them back out into their communities safely."

(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.)


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