WASHINGTON - Among prisoners held by the United States in Iraq, more than 200 are Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese and other foreigners who could become subject to military tribunals, U.S. military officials said yesterday.
The foreigners have been accused of unlawfully battling U.S. forces in Iraq, sometimes in close league with the paramilitary forces known as fedayeen. They are among several hundred prisoners in Iraq now categorized by the United States as unlawful combatants rather than prisoners of war, the officials said.
The disclosure added some detail to what remains a murky picture of the role played by foreigners and other militia fighters in opposing U.S. forces. U.S. commanders have described repeated encounters with foreign fighters in Iraq, including a busload detained in early April along with large amounts of cash, and have suggested that large numbers of those fighters may have been killed.
But in recent days, U.S. commanders have suggested that the foreigners may have been more than disorganized volunteers. In a briefing Wednesday, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of the Army's 5th Corps, described the foreigners as having been "seeded within and cooperating with the Saddam Fedayeen, which were at least fanatical, if not suicidal."
At a videoconference briefing from Iraq for reporters at the Pentagon yesterday, U.S. officers said they were well on the way to sorting through the thousands of prisoners detained by U.S. forces. They said they had released more than 7,000 of the more than 9,000 who had been held at a compound in Umm Qasr, in southern Iraq.
Among those who have been released, 3,781 were prisoners of war, most of low rank, the U.S. officers said. About the same number were released after they were determined to be civilians or other noncombatants.
Because no Iraqi government authority is in place to take charge of freed prisoners, those who have been released have been required to sign and carry with them letters of parole promising "not to engage in any hostile actions or take up arms against U.S. coalition forces" for the duration of the U.S.-led military presence in Iraq. The agreements state that the released prisoners may return to their military units, but only to "perform administrative and/or medical duties."
A separate group, composed of 17 Iraqis now in U.S. custody who are among 55 on a U.S. list of most-wanted Iraqi figures, are being held in solitary confinement at a detention facility in Baghdad, the officers said.
Of the 2,000 prisoners still being held in Umm Qasr, about 500 have been assigned high priority by the U.S. military and are being held for further interrogation and possible prosecution. In addition to the more than 200 foreign nationals, the group includes 178 suspected criminals detained during bank robberies and other crimes.
Besides those determined to have come from Syria, Jordan and Iraq, others came from the Persian Gulf states, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials said. But one officer said the representation of foreign fighters was "a lot more localized," primarily from the countries bordering Iraq, than was the case in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and the Taliban drew Muslim volunteers from all over the world.
The status of the remaining 1,500 among the 2,000 prisoners has not been determined.