Under the new U.S.-Iraqi security pact, the U.S. military must resolve the fate of 16,000 prisoners.

Share story

CAMP BUCCA, Iraq — U.S. officials in Iraq have turned prisons once described as training camps for would-be insurgents into something more closely resembling U.S.-style vocational schools.

Religious and technical training are offered to detainees, who are allowed to visit with relatives through teleconferencing calls.

But the recently approved U.S.-Iraqi security agreement soon will require the U.S. military to release the 16,000 Iraqi detainees — the vast majority of them held in this southern desert prison — or refer them to the nation’s courts.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

As the U.S. military-detention system here begins to come under Iraqi control, a complicated joint effort is under way to determine which of the men are safe to release and which may be insurgents.

“Most of the people they detain are innocent,” said Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.

Over the past year, senior U.S. military officers have sought to transform a system that had become a symbol of U.S. abuses in Iraq into one that is more consistent with the principles of a counterinsurgency strategy designed to win support of the population.

The process has improved prisoner conditions since the abuses committed by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib but has not created a system to determine the guilt or innocence of thousands of Iraqi detainees.

On a scorching morning earlier this year, Talib Mohammed Farkhan, who had been imprisoned for 15 months, shuffled into Hearing Room 3 to hear his U.S. captors explain the allegations against him for the first time.

Farkhan, a Shiite Muslim, appeared to follow along as the U.S. officers said he had been detained for membership in the Mahdi Army, the anti-American Shiite militia. But he looked totally baffled when they also accused him of working with al-Qaida in Iraq, the extremist Sunni Muslim group that kills Americans and Shiites.

“I don’t understand how that could be possible,” said a visibly flustered Farkhan, a welder from the southern city of Iskandariyah, who denied all the accusations. “They are Sunni. I am Shia.”

Yet the three U.S. servicemen before him, a panel of nonlawyers convened as part of a new quasi-judicial process to review each detainee’s case every six months, did not need to decide whether Farkhan had violated the law.

Their task was to decide whether he posed an “imperative security threat” to the U.S.-led coalition or the Iraqi people. And they concluded that credible evidence, which they would not describe to Farkhan or a Washington Post correspondent allowed to view the 19-minute hearing, suggested that he probably did.

“I’m not looking at whether they are guilty or innocent,” said Air Force Maj. Jeff Ghiglieri, the president of the review board that convened in May. “We’re trying to determine, as best we can, whether they will do bad things if we release them.”

Minutes later, the panel unanimously voted to detain Farkhan for another six months.

This proceeding is what has amounted to due process for many of the 100,000 prisoners who have passed through the American-run detention system in Iraq.

Although the legal controversy over detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has attracted far more attention, 100 times as many prisoners have been held at Camp Bucca and other Iraqi sites with far fewer legal rights and no oversight by the U.S. court system.

The Iraqis are not charged with crimes, permitted to see the evidence against them or provided lawyers.

But the Iraqi captives are now offered religious, academic and vocational classes. They are permitted to meet with relatives in person or long distance via videoconferencing equipment.

The detainees at Camp Bucca, many of whom like to read Agatha Christie mysteries and watch Jackie Chan movies, have their own choir, intramural soccer league and a workshop to produce stuffed animals called Bucca Bears.

“This used to be a jihadi university that was just breeding more terrorists,” said Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, who ran the detention system until this summer. “Now we are engaging the detainees and using detainee operations to teach the Iraqis here and improve their perception of Americans.”

Ali Sabri Abood, 31, a private in the Iraqi military who was released from Bucca this summer after being detained for a year, was shocked by how well he was treated at the facility.

The U.S. military taught him carpentry skills, improved his English and provided him with first-rate medical care. Still, the kind treatment did little to soothe his fury at being detained on charges he still doesn’t understand.

“Even if they turn the place into a paradise,” he said, “it is still a prison full of innocent men.”

Surprised by treatment

When Stone arrived in Iraq last year to command Task Force 134, which oversees detainee operations, he was shocked at what he found.

“Detention here in Iraq was an abject failure,” Stone said. “I realized nobody had any idea what we were doing here.”

Muslim extremists controlled Camp Bucca, gouging out the eyes and cutting out the tongues of more moderate prisoners who disobeyed them, U.S. officials said.

He decided he would create a counterinsurgency strategy centered on the fundamental tenets of the Army’s counterinsurgency strategy: protect the population and engage moderate voices. According to U.S. military statistics, less than a quarter were members of al-Qaida in Iraq or the Mahdi Army and 70 percent did not even attend mosque every week.

Violence began to plummet and the rate of recapture dropped from 7.6 percent between 2004 and 2006 to less than 1.2 percent last year. As the detainee population skyrocketed from about 15,000 at the beginning of last year to 26,000 at the height of the “surge” in U.S. troops in Iraq, Stone implemented measures to explain to detainees how the process worked and why they were being held.

The military created a cartoon booklet for detainees, featuring an Iraqi named Ahmed, who was arrested for planting roadside bombs, and an anthropomorphized yellow manila folder filled with evidence against him. Stone, despite the objections of his top lawyer, also created the review panels so detainees could hear why they were being held and what the charges were against them.

But Stone angrily rejected demands from detainee advocates to implement a U.S.-style judicial system in the middle of a war zone.

“I’m a pragmatic believer in human rights, but you can’t just have it from the beginning.”

Major changes at camp

The sweeping changes in detention operations are visible at Camp Bucca, a two-square-mile facility in the desert with so many prisoners that U.S. officials have said it would be the 63rd-largest city in Iraq. At night, its floodlights are so bright that soldiers say it looks like Las Vegas.

U.S. officials allowed The Washington Post to visit Bucca and Camp Cropper, a facility near the Baghdad airport, but not to speak directly with the detainees because they said it would violate the Geneva Conventions. Some detainees, however, agreed to answer questions relayed through military officials.

The most visible symbols of the new strategy are the ubiquitous Bucca Bears created by the detainees. The first one was fashioned by Haider, a farmer from Najaf who has been at Bucca for three years, out of yellow sheets and the stuffing from his mattress. Markers were used to draw crude features. “When they found the bear with me they confiscated it, and I was afraid I was in trouble,” he said.

But instead of punishing Haider, U.S. officials decided to create an arts-and-crafts program and produce the Bucca Bears on a wider scale to be distributed to children visiting the detainees.

As Haider fashioned his stuffed animals, an imam at a nearby compound preached a moderate version of Islam and a former politician taught a civics class, part of the detention system’s focus on engaging moderates.

As 20 detainees gathered around Sheik Abdul Sattar Abdul Jibar on prayer mats, he told them to avoid sectarian violence and peer pressure. “Who is going to paradise?” asked Jibar, 45, a Baghdad preacher. “The Shia guy says the Shia. The Sunni says the Sunni. This is wrong. People are judged by God, based on their own behavior.”

The most dangerous Sunni extremists are housed at Compound 30, known as the Rock. The prisoners hurl urine, feces and tennis-ball-size clumps of dirt and tea at U.S. troops.

“Everyone’s always on edge here,” said 2nd Lt. Kyle Graves, the compound chief.

Things are different for Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Sabia, assigned to work with detainees in the camp’s carpentry program. Carpentry tools that could be used as deadly weapons — bow saws, handsaws, screwdrivers and various power tools — were freely available to the loosely supervised detainees to use.

“There is a high level of trust,” Sabia said. “We’ve had no problems with any of the detainees.”

Washington Post correspondents Joshua Partlow and Ernesto Londono in Baghdad contributed to this report.