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In Iraq, the American military is now releasing more Iraqi detainees there than it's bringing in. That's because it's found that most of those detained are not dangerous criminals or even 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.

NPR's Tom Bowman visited some of these former detainees and the prison they left behind.

TOM BOWMAN: Allah Messer(ph) seems an unlikely insurgent. The slight 17-year-old with the 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's just emerged from nine months in the American detention center at Camp Cropper, on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Mr. ALLAH MESSER (Former Detainee): (Through translator) They picked me up from the street. They told me that they will interrogate me and will release me afterward.

BOWMAN: Allah has come home to the farming areas of Arab Jabbor(ph), once a hotbed for al-Qaida in Iraq. Allah sits in the office of Mustafa Shabib al-Jabouri(ph), a former Sunni general under Saddam Hussein who now runs a local chapter of the Sons of Iraq, the U.S.-paid paramilitary that helps American and Iraqi forces keep the peace.

Mustafa says that al-Qaida was able to turn young people like Allah, who is also his nephew.

Mr. MUSTAFA SHABIB AL-JABOUR: (Through translator) Those are our sons and mistakes have been made. Now, God willing, there will be no more problems.

BOWMAN: Few Americans in Iraq know of those problems better than Major General Doug Stone. For the past year he's been running the American detention facilities of Camp Cropper and Camp Buka(ph) in southern Iraq. Before he came here, the detention facilities had become an insurgent training ground.

Major General DOUG STONE (U.S. Army): Without exception the reports that came out during those days that said that this was a, you know, quote - their words, not mine - Jihadist university, were accurate.

BOWMAN: That means al-Qaida leaders were organizing in this prison, teaching bomb-making skills, holding court, and handing out harsh punishments, like eye gouging, says Stone. Stone quickly realized more and more detainees, most of them young, semi-literate and unemployed, like Allah, were being warehoused by the Americans, radicalized by hardcore 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.

Mr. STONE: 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 hold me? What's the fairness in this? And eventually they'll say something about America that we don't want to hear. They're going to say, wait a minute, you're not here to better the population, you're here to conquer us, and you're taking me hostage.

BOWMAN: So Stone worked to separate the most extreme inmates from the hangers on. He set up classes in everything from civics and the Koran to welding and woodworking. Allah 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.

Mr. STONE: We determined - by judgment, really - it's judgment that got them into detention and it has to be judgment that gets them out.

BOWMAN: 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.

(Soundbite of chanting)

BOWMAN: Shuffling through the yard is a handcuffed 18-year-old from Baghdad's Zafrania(ph) neighborhood, accused of working with insurgents. He's just been ordered released by a review board that includes Sergeant First Class Marcus Rashard(ph).

Sergeant MARCUS RASHARD (U.S. Army): There was no hard evidence, right. 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.

BOWMAN: Roughly 50 detainees each day are set free. That's twice the number coming in. And Stone estimates that two-thirds of his 23,000 detainees are not a danger and can be released. That's not sitting well, Stone admits, with all American commanders in Iraq.

Mr. STONE: Oh yeah. I mean, you know, 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 that they don't like it. They don't like detainees to ever come back.

BOWMAN: But Stone says the senior officers are coming around, partly because the top commander, General 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.

Mr. STONE: I think that right now the lower re-internment rate has got them encouraged.

BOWMAN: 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? Allah Messer and Arab Jabour says there's no work here. He's 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.

Mr. STONE: A new program where 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.

BOWMAN: That stipend will be about $200 each month, roughly what al-Qaida in Iraq was paying them.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Baghdad.

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