Iraqi detentions fuel anti-US sentiment

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq -- The American military is holding some 8,000 Iraqi security detainees without trial or formal charges, most of them in a prison where at least six US guards have been criminally charged with abusing inmates.

While legal under the Geneva Conventions, the detentions are proving disastrous to the public image of the US-led occupation authority, as hundreds of Iraqis freed this month spread stories of dismal prison conditions and say they were never told why they were arrested.

US officials insist they treat the prisoners fairly, but the widely circulated stories about seemingly arbitrary arrests fuel the sense of injustice here; even as the coalition builds democratic institutions for Iraq, including a new court system, a parallel legal system for detainees persists with few apparent rights for the accused.

In one such case, Mahmoud Khodair said American soldiers blasted into his basement apartment six months ago and dragged him off, accusing him of aiding insurgents. He was held under a procedure that allows occupation forces to imprison without trial those suspected of "anticoalition activity."

Like hundreds more, he was released earlier this month, with no explanation of why he was arrested in the first place or why he was ultimately cleared to go home.

Khodair, a 55-year-old cafe owner, colorfully recounted to a half-dozen men packed in his dark, half-underground bedroom on a recent afternoon how he was forced to sit on his knees in the sun for 10 hours before his first interrogation. "It was just like hell," he recalled.

"Nothing has changed since Saddam," Khodair said. "Before, the Mukhabarat [secret police] would take us away, and at least they wouldn't blow down the door. Now, some informant fingers you and gets $100 even if you're innocent."

It is a problem US military officials have acknowledged, even as they craft a new approach. Last weekend, they charged six military police officers with abusing inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad. On Friday, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the coalition military spokesman, said that senior Army commanders were pursuing an administrative investigation of the prison.

In recent weeks, commanders also have accelerated their review of security detainees. They hope to more quickly discern who was arrested on bad information and release them. Already, the review board that evaluates the risk posed by detainees has started to meet six days a week. Legally, the Geneva Conventions require the United States to revisit a detainee's status every six months, but military officials say they are conducting reviews at least every four months.

They are also planning to more aggressively explain to detainees the safeguards in place to protect their rights. A senior coalition official said that every detainee held at Abu Ghraib is given a copy of the internment order in Arabic.

A mass detainee release Tuesday -- the first of its kind witnessed by reporters and the third in the last month -- underscores some of the problems. The review board, consisting of military police, intelligence officers, and judge advocates general, cleared 272 men who had spent anywhere from one to six months in Abu Ghraib, the crumbling, ramshackle prison complex known as the pit where Saddam Hussein's henchmen tortured political prisoners and plunged common criminals into inhumane squalor.

On Tuesday morning, they were handed $10 and herded out of the prison gates to a fleet of waiting buses. They come from all over the country, and were offered a free trip as far south as Hillah or as far north as Tikrit. For now, they do not get a letter explaining why they were held and are not aware that military lawyers regularly examined their case files while they were detained; the military rules require this review, as well as a face-to-face explanation to the detainee of the charges and rights, within 72 hours of being held.

Of the 8,000 security detainees nationally, about 5,500 of them were kept in Abu Ghraib, officials say. Others are held at Baghdad International Airport -- where Hussein is also believed to be a captive -- and at Camp Bucca, a former POW camp in southern Iraq, outside Basra.

Many of their complaints echo those of prisoners worldwide: dirty quarters, bad food, cramped quarters. Other allegations are more serious: three released detainees interviewed by the Globe said that money confiscated during their arrest was never returned. The senior coalition official said the military investigates all allegations of theft and punishes any soldier found guilty.

Previously unverifiable claims about abuse of prisoners gained credence last weekend when Kimmitt announced criminal charges against six soldiers for dereliction of duty, cruelty and maltreatment, and assault and indecent acts with another -- the military's term for sexual abuse.

Lieutenant Colonel Craig Essick, the Military Police commander who took charge of Abu Ghraib in February -- after the alleged abuse incidents -- said, "We've stressed treatment with dignity and respect."

To make it easier for families to find incarcerated relatives, the coalition has posted lists of prisoners at offices around the country, and Internet-savvy Iraqis can download a spreadsheet from the coalition's Arabic website,, with a list of detainees and their location.

With 22 attacks a day against the coalition, there is no shortage of security suspects. Many of those arrested have provided valuable intelligence in the hunt for insurgents, and many senior Ba'athists have been detained, military officials said.

Nada Doumani, spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross in Baghdad, said the organization had unimpeded access to the coalition's detention facilities. It is Red Cross policy not to publicly comment on detention conditions.

Still, these attempts to safeguard rights are largely lost on the thousands who have been caught in the coalition dragnet.

Khodair has hired an attorney to petition coalition officials for 14 million Iraqi dinar, worth about $10,000, that he said was stolen from his home during his arrest. His attorney, Talal al-Dawody, 40, a former police officer, has undertaken five cases requesting damages from the coalition but does not expect to win any.

A 57-year-old retired police officer who called himself Abu Musaab, afraid to give his full name for fear of retribution by US soldiers, said he and his three sons were arrested at 1 a.m. on Sept. 25 because a neighbor falsely accused them of aiding Fedayeen insurgents.

After being questioned three times through an interpreter, Abu Musaab said, his interrogator told him he was satisfied of his innocence. But the family members were held a full month in Abu Ghraib before their release. And the $160 he kept in a locked briefcase for the month's household expenses was taken and never returned, he said.

Just weeks back in his Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya, Khodair has had trouble readjusting to life on the outside. The capital is still a violent place, and he lives in fear of being detained again. His anger over the six-month incarceration he views as unjust is matched only by the dismal prospects he sees for his future.

Squinting in the late afternoon light as he unlocked the terrace gate to open his rooftop cafe for business, he said: "Can you believe that people who came to see us in prison told us we were better off inside than outside, seeing the tragedy of Iraq?"

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at

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