Faced with a ballooning prison population, U.S. commanders in Iraq are building new detention facilities at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Faced with a ballooning prison population, U.S. commanders in Iraq are building new detention facilities at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Bucca near the Kuwaiti border and are developing a third major prison, in northern Iraq.

The burgeoning number of detainees also has resulted in a lengthy delay in plans for the United States to leave Abu Ghraib fully in the hands of the Iraqi government.

Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, who oversees U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, originally had planned to be out of Abu Ghraib by early spring. “I believed it until mid-December, but the numbers just weren’t going that way,” he said. “Business is booming.”

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The new timeline calls for the United States to stop using Abu Ghraib by February 2006, at which point the entire prison would be turned over to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

In the wake of the 2003 scandal over abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, President Bush had advocated demolishing Abu Ghraib “as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning.”

But the Iraqi government has since begun using the prison, which previously was infamous as a torture center under Saddam Hussein, to house its own prisoners convicted under its nascent criminal-justice system. The prison, just west of Baghdad, is now a joint facility, with the U.S. Army and Iraqi government housing detainees in separate compounds.

Aggressive operations against insurgents over the past six months have brought a flood of new prisoners to U.S.-run facilities — including many believed to be hard-line rebels who have launched bloody attacks on U.S. troops.

The number of U.S.-held prisoners in Iraq reached all-time record levels earlier in June and has since gone down slightly. Through Saturday the average prisoner total in June stood at 10,783, up from 7,837 in January and 5,435 in June 2004.

The two main U.S. Army-run prisons, Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad and Camp Bucca, are operating near their maximum or “surge” emergency limits. As of Saturday, the two prisons held 10,178 inmates, with an additional 1,630 awaiting processing in different Army divisional and brigade headquarters.

“We’re pushing our surge capacity,” said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill in Baghdad.

The army is expanding both sites and planning the third major prison, which would house up to 2,000 prisoners, near Suleimania; the construction boom will increase the total U.S. long-term detention capability to more than 16,000 prisoners.

Both existing U.S. major detention camps in Iraq are considered volatile compounds whose guards must be on constant lookout for potential riots and escape attempts.

The potential impact of the overcrowding on both prisoners and guards could become a serious concern as Iraq moves into the heart of a traditionally broiling summer. High stress among overworked U.S. military police is partially blamed for leading to the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners last year that made Abu Ghraib synonymous to many Iraqis with U.S. abuse.

Bucca, meanwhile, has witnessed a spate of escape attempts and at least two major riots in the past six months.

“It’s been a challenge,” said Col. James Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade. “Many of the people we’ve now captured have not given up the struggle.”

Brown has reassigned MPs from other duties in Iraq, including the vital task of training new Iraqi police officers, to help beef up the guard force at both Bucca and Abu Ghraib.

Brandenburg emphasized that he still hopes to end the U.S. presence at Abu Ghraib by early next year. But with a large percentage of the detainees taken into custody in and around the capital, the general estimates he will still need capacity to hold around 2,000 prisoners in the Baghdad area.

As a result, the eventual Abu Ghraib departure will coincide with a large-scale expansion of the Camp Cropper prison, which is on a U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport and now houses “high value” prisoners such as Saddam’s top lieutenants and possibly Saddam himself.

The expansion campaign will cost just more than $50 million: $30 Million for Camp Cropper, $12 million to expand Camp Bucca, $8 million to renovate Fort Suse and just less than $1 million for Abu Ghraib.

Efforts to relieve the crowding by speeding up prisoner releases have been frustrated, officials say, by an increase in prisoners deemed a high risk to commit further acts of violence if set free. A Combined Review and Release Board, composed of three U.S. officials and six Iraqis — two each from the ministries of interior, justice and human rights — reviews each new prisoner within 90 days of his arrival. The board decides which prisoners can be safely released and which ones still pose an immediate threat and must be detained long-term.

A second joint Iraqi-American review board has been created in hopes of speeding up prisoner releases. But a new breed of more hard-core detainee has partially stymied the release process.

Through the end of last year, Rudisill said, about 40 percent of the detainees whose cases were reviewed were judged “high risk” or “extremely high risk.” Since January, that percentage has risen to 60 percent.

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