US Army, HO/AP
Detainees at Camp Cropper detention facility outside Baghdad attend class in this photo released by the U.S. military Aug. 4, 2007. Many Camp Cropper detainees are being freed because they are not considered dangerous.
US Army, HO/AP
The U.S. military is now releasing more Iraqi detainees in Iraq than it is bringing in. That's because it has found that most of those detained are not dangerous criminals or extremists, but young, poorly educated men without jobs who accepted money from al-Qaida in Iraq to serve as lookouts, or to build or plant roadside bombs.
Ala'a Mezher seems an unlikely insurgent. A slight 17-year-old with a shy smile, a head full of black curls, he wears a clean, white T-shirt and trendy camouflage pants; a woven bracelet on his thin wrist.
He has just emerged from nine months in the American detention center at Camp Cropper, on the outskirts of Baghdad.
"They picked me up from the street. They told me that they will interrogate me and will release me afterward," he says.
Ala'a has come home to the farming area of Arab Jabour, once a hotbed for al-Qaida in Iraq.
Ala'a sits in the office of Mustafa Shabib al-Jabouri, a former Sunni general under Saddam Hussein who now runs the local chapter of the Sons of Iraq — the U.S.-paid para-military that helps American and Iraqi forces keep the peace.
Mustafa says al-Qaida was able to turn young people like Ala'a, who is his nephew.
"Those are our sons, and mistakes have been made. Now, God willing, there will be no more problems," al-Jabouri says.
Converting an Insurgent Training Ground
Few Americans in Iraq know of those problems better than Maj. Gen. Doug Stone. For the past year, he has been running the American detention facilities of Camp Cropper, and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. Before he came here, the detention facilities had become an insurgent training ground.
"Without exception, the reports that came out during those days that said that this was a, quote — their words not mine — 'Jihadist University' were accurate," Stone says.
That means al-Qaida leaders were organizing in this prison, teaching bomb-making skills, holding court and handing out harsh punishments, like eye gouging, Stone says.
Stone quickly realized more and more detainees — most of them young, semi-literate and unemployed, like Ala'a — were being warehoused by the Americans, radicalized by hard-core al-Qaida militants, making the insurgency even worse.
If the Americans had kept on that course, there'd be 50,000 Iraqis behind bars now, Stone says — double the current number.
"Now you've got a bunch of moderates who really shouldn't be in there in the first place, and I can hold them forever but eventually they're going to say, 'Why are you holding me? What's the fairness in this?' And eventually they'll say something about America we don't want to hear. They'll say 'You're not here to better the population. You're here to conquer us and you're taking me hostage.' "
Judgment In, Judgment Out
So, he worked to separate the most extreme inmates from the hangers-on.
Stone set up classes in everything from civics and the Quran, to welding and woodworking. Ala'a took some English classes.
Stone also created what he calls the "central nervous system" of his new plan: a three-member military review board that would hear the case of each detainee.
"We determine by judgment, really. It's judgment that got them into detention and it has to be judgment that gets them out," he says.
On a recent afternoon at Camp Cropper, inmates in yellow prison garb cluster in small groups across the yard, a checkerboard of long brick houses behind chain-link topped with razor wire. Some spread out their clothes to dry on the concrete, others play ping pong; still others bow their heads in prayer as Iraqi guards march past.
Shuffling through the yard is a handcuffed 18-year-old from Baghdad's Zafraniyah neighborhood accused of working with insurgents. He has just been ordered released by a review board that includes Sgt. 1st Class Marcus Richard.
"There was no hard evidence. Is he a threat? No. Could he be? Yeah, roger, anybody can. ... This kid has a chance, and I'd like to give him that opportunity to make himself to be a better citizen of Iraq," Richard says.
Support from the Top
Roughly 50 detainees each day are set free. That's twice the number coming in. Stone estimates that two-thirds of his 23,000 detainees are not a danger and can be released.
That does not sit well, Stone admits, with all American commanders in Iraq.
"As a general rule of thumb, divisions don't want anyone let back out. ... I don't blame them. I don't fault them. But I do understand. ... They don't like detainees to ever come back," Stone says.
But he says the senior officers are coming around, partly because the top commander, Gen. David Petraeus, is supportive — and the program appears to be showing results. Of the 8,000 detainees released under Stone's program, just two dozen have landed back in detention.
"I think that right now the lower re-internment rate has got them encouraged," Stone says.
But now Stone has a new worry. Will these former inmates find themselves in the same economic predicament that helped get them here in the first place?
Ala'a Mezher in Arab Jabour says there is no work here. He has had just a few construction jobs.
So, Stone has another plan. It's something like a paid visit to a parole officer for these at-risk young people, until the local economy can put them to work. Total cost? About $10 million.
"We're going to monitor them, so every month for six months, they're going to come back, they're going to get a stipend," he says.
That stipend will be about $200 each month. Roughly what al-Qaida in Iraq was paying them.