Prisoner release fueling concern in Iraq

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 27, 2009

BAGHDAD — The converted garage was already sweltering at 7:15 a.m.

Iraqi army Maj. Saleem al-Asady delivered a sermon of peace to a group of weary-looking men donning the rumpled button-down shirts of the newly free.

Al-Asady used the story of Cain and Abel to urge the former prisoners not to harm fellow Iraqis.

“Congratulations on your release,” he said. “The hard times are almost done.”

After signing pledges of nonviolence, the former prisoners, many accused of ties to the insurgency, walked into a gymnasium full of friends and relatives to hugs, tears and celebratory ululation.

That scene has played out countless times in Iraq recently, as the United States transfers hundreds of prisoners a month to Iraqi custody as part of the U.S.-Iraqi security pact.

What happens next, though, has many in Iraq concerned, and one senior Iraqi officer says the prisoner releases have fueled recent insurgent violence.

“It seems to me that everyone who was released from (Camp) Bucca has returned to their old jobs and is attacking the security forces again,” said Iraqi army Col. Abul Razaq Jasim, who is responsible for operations across a large swath of Diyala province.

Many former detainees find it hard to secure jobs because of the stigma of imprisonment, making a return to violence the only way to make money. Others simply never changed and are feared to have rejoined the insurgency, Iraqi and U.S. military officials.

For example, a former detainee is suspected in the bombings last month of two Iraqi government ministries that killed around 100 people.

U.S. Army Maj. Greg Jones, an official with the U.S. military’s detainee program, said there has been little recidivism among released detainees.

“The release is at a responsible rate,” he said. “There are obviously people who, it doesn’t matter what happens, they’re going to fight. Obviously, you’re not going to be able to reintegrate everyone back into the population successfully.”

On Sept. 17, the U.S. closed its main prison at Camp Bucca, which once held more than 21,000 prisoners. Most are freed either because there is no outstanding warrant for their arrest or because they are deemed safe.

Some 8,000 detainees remain in American custody at Camp Cropper, in Baghdad and Camp Taji just north of the capital. Under Iraqi law, every prisoner not wanted for a specific crime will be freed at some point.

Prisoners are released with fresh clothes and bus fare.

“I have to begin my life anew,” said Manar Walid, 19, who spent 21 months in U.S. custody before his release earlier this month in Baghdad.

Some prisoners were undoubtedly swept up erroneously in the chaos of war. But some hardened insurgents were detained while the bullets were still flying and before new rules requiring warrants for arrest were enacted by the Iraqi government, and therefore would be eligible for release.

Some U.S. officials see the danger.

“It’s a big concern because we know some of them are bad guys,” said Capt. Peter Casterline with the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

Prisoners have to have a sponsor to be released, but in rural areas some sheiks will sponsor 100 prisoners at a time, making tracking all of them nearly impossible. Information sharing between the Iraqi army and police units in different provinces is spotty, further complicating the effort.

Maj. Basim Ibrahim Abed, who commands a force of Iraqi police officers in the Diyala province town of Abu Khamis, said he doesn’t even get a list of prisoners to be released in his area ahead of time.

In Diyala, where the insurgency is still active, recently released detainees are quickly finding old friends, Iraqi security officials said.

“There are some people, when they get released it is very hard to change their minds,” Abed said. “Therefore, when they get released they will go back to al-Qaida.”

A former prisoner waits to be reunited with his family after being released from a U.S. military prison. Some Iraqi and U.S. officials say former detainees are rejoining the insurgency.

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