U.S. Grapples with Holding Iraqi Detainees

One result of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is an increase in suspected Iraqi insurgents in U.S. custody. They total nearly 24,000. The U.S. military is trying to figure out how to hold those detainees without allowing the detention camps to become recruiting centers for radical militant groups.

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The increase in American troops in Iraq is widely credited with reducing violence in Baghdad and other parts of the country. Another result of last year's surge, there are now nearly twice as many suspected Iraqi insurgents in U.S. custody - nearly 24,000 in all. The U.S. military is trying to figure out how to hold those detainees without allowing detention camps to become recruiting centers for the most radical militant groups.

NPR's Corey Flintoff visited the biggest U.S. detention center.

COREY FLINTOFF: The crowd gathers just after dusk, outside the freshly tiled and painted building with a ceremonial red ribbon stretched across its entrance. Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Williams(ph) steps up to the microphone.

Lieutenant Colonel PATRICK WILLIAMS (U.S. Army): Today we open the Dar al-Hikma Book of Freedom School, I guess, I can call it Part two. The buildings you see will support higher education for our detainee population.

FLINTOFF: Dar al-Hikma is the Arabic name for the new school. It means house of wisdom. And the U.S. military hopes it will be a transformational place for the nearly 20,000 Iraqis housed at this sprawling detention camp in the desert of far southern Iraq.

Brigadier General Michael Nevin believes that basic education is one of the keys to returning former militants to Iraqi society. The U.S. detention system offers first through fifth grade schooling for some nearly illiterate detainees as well as health care, family visitations and a military system for reviewing their cases. Nevin admits that it hasn't been easy to convince his fellow commanders that this is an important part of fighting the war.

Brigadier General MICHAEL NEVIN (U.S. Army): This is seen as a byproduct of war fighting, but you've got to look at it in a counterinsurgency terms. All the population engagements you do are part of the counterinsurgency effort, and this is a significant population engagement. The spheres of influence in the Iraqi society, each detainee represents 100 family members - tribal members, relatives, friends that care about them. With the population that we have, we're affecting the perceptions of two and a half million Iraqis.

FLINTOFF: Until the surge began last spring, Camp Bucca had a much smaller population, but it was a chaotic and dangerous place. Radical inmates fought their guards with stones, burned down their barracks and imposed their own rules on the other detainees.

Major General Doug Stone, the commander of U.S. detention operations in Iraq, says that worst of all, hardened militants were able to use the camps to recruit young men. He says that some young detainees were not extremists but were bribed or intimidated into taking part. Some may have been innocent.

Major General DOUG STONE (Commander, U.S. Detention, Iraq): In fact, there are mistakes made. Very significant guys get away and are unknown and guys that are oftentimes very minimally involved or wrapped up.

FLINTOFF: Stone says that much of the anger in the camps stemmed from the fact that the detainees have not been convicted of anything and they have no fixed sentences, so there's a sense of isolation and hopelessness. One way of combating that is to bring each detainee before a military review board that can examine his case and recommend that he be released.

Unidentified Man #1: Please (unintelligible) in the detainee.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: A young man stands before a tribunal composed of two officers and a senior enlisted man. He fidgets in his yellow prison jumpsuit and windbreaker hang loosely from skinny shoulders. This is the review board.

Frank Hutchison is a Navy lieutenant commander and a lawyer.

Lieutenant FRANK HUTCHISON (U.S. Navy; Lawyer): The detainee walks in the room and he is read his rights, and approves of rights that is given to the detainee. At that point, the detainee is swore in. He swears on the Koran, if he's Muslim - and not all of them are. And then at that point, the detainee is read what he's been alleged to have done to get him here. And then the board is sort of a give-and-take.

FLINTOFF: Hutchison says the sessions last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. And the three person-boards have to process a lot of them to meet their goal of reviewing every inmate every six months.

Lt. HUTCHISON: In a typical day, we do anywhere between 160 to 200 people, in fact, as many as 240 there for a while.

FLINTOFF: At the end of the hearing, the detainee is told that he'll receive a letter in 45 days, telling him whether he'll be released or extended for another six months. If the board feels that he's made progress in detention, he may be recommended to take part in educational, vocational and religious programs. It's not due process as Americans know it, but Colonel James Brown, the commander of Camp Bucca, says it breaks the cycle of hopelessness that helps turn people who are minor fighters into full-blown radicals.

Colonel JAMES BROWN (Commander, Camp Bucca): It has an enduring effect that - because majority of the guys that we recommend they stay. The reason we're commending they stay is because the clear preponderance of evidence is that they were engaged in any coalition combat, that since they were doing that, the likelihood is very high that they will continue to that. And they understand it. But they respect being a part of the process.

FLINTOFF: For those who don't get to go home, there is the school and the religious program run by an imam who leads discussions of the Koran and tries to refute the teachings of religious radicals known as Takfiris. Because they are zealous and well-organized, they can recruit or intimidate more moderate inmates in their compounds, ruling them like gang leaders in American prisons.

The American strategy at Camp Bucca is to identify the radicals and move them into separate compounds at one end of the camp.

Colonel Brown.

Col. BROWN: These are the Takfirian and al-Qaida compounds. These guys, they came from hardened groups, extremists. They were fighting us. Their belief is that you kill anybody who doesn't agree with your extremely rigid view of Islam, especially other Islamic people.

FLINTOFF: Brown says that even the most extreme inmates still have their status reviewed every six months, and that they have access to family visits and educational programs, although most refused to take part.

Since they have been segregated and since the review process began last August, the American commanders say that even the radical compounds have been quiet. The biggest problem with them is that the inmates are constantly working to escape digging tunnels and tearing up their mattresses to make clothes that will cover their canary yellow prison uniforms once they're outside.

Major General Doug Stone, the detention operations commander, says that's something that keeps him awake at nights.

Maj. Gen. STONE: The thing that I do - I think about all the time is the guys that are really, really smart. And have they figured out how to jujitsu me and our fighters. I mean, have they already infiltrated something? Or have they already engaged in understanding our behavior and what we want to do so well that they've adapted to it, and I don't see it.

FLINTOFF: One weakness of Stone's strategy is simply that the educational and religious programs are still too new and too small to reach more than a few of the nearly 20,000 detainees at Camp Bucca. His commanders are working to create more space for programs, but they say they need more guards to supervise the detainees and move them from place to place inside the camp to be effective in what Stone calls the battlefield of the mind.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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