Iraqi detainee numbers lessen

By RICHARD TOMKINS, UPI Correspondent  |  July 16, 2009 at 6:21 PM
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BAGHDAD, July 16 (UPI) -- Thousands of Iraqis detained prior to the beginning of the year by U.S. troops for security-related offenses are slowly but steadily being released from custody as the United States scales back operations in the run-up to complete withdrawal from the country.

In late June there were about 10,800 detainees -- 19 of them juveniles -- behind the concrete barriers, concertina wire and chain-link fences of Camp Bucca, Camp Cropper and Camp Taji, said Capt. William Powell of Task Force 134, which is in charge of detentions in Iraq.

They're currently being set free at a rate of about 750 a month, half of what was originally agreed upon between U.S. and Iraqi officials earlier this year.

"The release number per week fluctuates, but we reduced releases and transfers to about 750 per month at the request of the government of Iraq," Powell said.

"The change occurred in April. The government of Iraq asked us to slow down our releases to give the government of Iraq more time to review case files and look for or generate arrest warrants and detention orders" on some prisoners in U.S. custody.

As of late June, the total number of Iraqis in U.S. custody stood at 10,836 compared with 26,121 in November 2007, the height of incarceration amid the surge of U.S. forces into Baghdad to quell sectarian and extremist violence, according to TF-134 figures.

The detentions took place under the now-expired and replaced U.N. Security Council Resolution 1790, which allowed multinational forces in the country to take all necessary measures to help establish and maintain security and stability.

Under the Iraq-U.S. Strategic Framework Agreement that came into effect Jan. 1, U.S. troops can no longer incarcerate Iraqis. Those detained because of imminent threat or because they were specifically targeted in warrant-based operations must be turned over to Iraqi control and disposition within 24 hours of being picked up.

Those now in custody and being released are being held for a variety of offences -- from attacking U.S. troops to illegal possession of firearms.

"It's strange that people like murderers are considered low threat," said 2nd Lt. Brent Beadle, a liaison officer for Iraqi Security Forces with the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, in northeast Baghdad. "If these guys are "Green" releases (those considered unlikely to offend again) I'd hate to think what the "Red" list looks like.

"There are people in this group that were charged with resisting arrest, assault on Coalition Forces, kidnapping, extortion, obstruction, weapons trafficking, intimidation, even murder."

Beadle made his comment in a dimly lit hallway of the administration building at Camp Cropper, a detainee facility by Baghdad International Airport. His mission there was to collect 20 Iraqis to be released in northeast Baghdad, double-check all data for their release and transport them to Iraqi Security Force stations where the former prisoners would sign declarations of good behavior and be reunited with their families.

First out of the holding cell when the heavy green door was opened was prisoner Jasim Abed Hassan, a 33-year-old Shiite policeman.

"It (the arrest) was because of the group I belonged to -- Jaish al-Mahdi," he said. "I just want to go home now and be with my family and go back to work."

Jasim, held about a year, had been a cell leader of the extremist militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr and had been involved in attacks on U.S. troops, according to records shown a reporter.

Second out of the holding cell was 21-year-old Najim Abd Ali, a Sunni auto-body repairman picked up for illegal weapons possession.

"I was just walking down the street when they detained me," he said in way of an explanation for his detention.

Jasim and Najim, like others released that day, wore cargo-type trousers given them by their U.S. jailers and long-sleeved shirts. Some, like Jasim, clutched special papers as they put their arms out for the placing of plastic wrist restraints and awaited their final blindfolding for the bus trip to freedom.

The papers were certificates from detention officials showing successful completion of courses and activities offered in the camps, such as religious discussion groups with Muslim clerics to reconcile Shiite and Sunni differences, basic and intermediate computer skills, woodworking, reading and writing, mathematics and brick making.

The trip to release on an old, paint-faded Nissan bus was uneventful. The Iraqi police guard didn't intervene when the newly released detainees pushed up their blindfolds, instructions to the contrary, once they were outside the confines of the detainee facility.

Restraints and blindfolds were quickly discarded as the men were hurriedly led away by Iraqi forces for final processing and release.

An Iraqi National Police station in Sha'ab was the first stop for the bus. Sha'ab is a predominantly Shiite community close to Sadr City and the preferred release point for most of the Shiite detainees. Sunnis were dropped off in Old Adhamiya and a mixed group in Rusafa.

"This is a good step," said a member of the Iraqi National Police who would only identify himself as Karar. "Some of them were not guilty and were detained without reason. But some deserved what they got."

"All the ISF (Iraqi Security Force) partners have been really cooperative, helping us contact the families, in getting guarantors for behavior and with setting up release ceremonies," Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Rhode said. "I've done 10 releases since February and they all went smoothly."

Rhode said that on average one or two of the people in a release group are re-detained immediately by Iraqi authorities, either for additional questioning or to answer other charges. No re-arrests occurred with those released by Beadle.

Beadle's release mission was the last the battalion performed before June 30, the date when most U.S. forces in Iraq were required to withdraw from population centers to peripheral areas. That requirement, mandated by the Strategic Framework Agreement, will complicate future releases for the battalion and others. Beadle's unit, although headquartered in a multinational base not yet requested to be closed or transferred to Iraqi forces, is not allowed on the streets during daylight hours.

"This, unfortunately, has made detainee release a bit of a problem since we like to incorporate families, local sheiks and our ISF partners," he said. "Now with the order it has us developing a different course of action. We have to start our movements -- collection, transport and transfer -- late at night … leaving the rest up to the Iraqi army and police."

Camp Bucca, located near the Kuwait border, is scheduled to be closed in September. It holds more than 4,000 detainees, TF-134 said. Camps Taji and Crooper combined hold more than 6,000 prisoners.

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