U.S. to retain inmates, prisons

Concerns about abuse in Iraqi facilities are delaying handoff, commander says


WASHINGTON -- The commander of American-run prisons in Iraq says the military will not turn over any detainees or detention centers to Iraqi jailers until American officials are satisfied that the Iraqis are meeting U.S. standards for the care and custody of detainees.

"Bottom line, we will not pass on facilities or detainees until they meet the standards we define and that we are using today," the commander, Maj. Gen. John D. Gardner of the Army, said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Iraq.

The comments come in the aftermath of two recent raids of Iraqi government detention centers that uncovered scores of abused prisoners. They also followed calls by American officials for the Iraqi government to bar militias from dominating the security forces. American military experts have joined Iraqi officials in inspecting Iraqi detention centers.

The general's remarks also come at a time when the four main American-operated prisons in Iraq are still severely overcrowded - despite a $50 million expansion that is nearing completion - and American officials are training Iraqis to take over detention duties.

The number of violent detainees has increased to more than 14,000 prisoners from about 8,000 in January. The crowding has been compounded by a growing backlog of prisoners, now about 3,100 people, waiting for Iraq's fledgling judicial system to hear their cases.

Gardner, who took command Nov. 30, expressed optimism that the inspections of Iraqi detention sites would not unduly delay the American military's goal of delivering Iraqi detainees to the Iraqi government. Military officials said they had a tentative target of turning over American-run prisons to the Iraqis by the end of 2006, although no timetable has been approved. But other senior military officials said turning over all Iraqi prisoners to the Iraqis could stretch into 2007.

Pentagon and military officials say that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, has expressed frustration over the burden of guarding and caring for a detainee population that is growing far faster than inmates can be processed and turned over to Iraqi authorities.

One Pentagon official described the Iraqi detainee population as a "millstone" that sapped personnel who otherwise could be assigned to other pressing missions. About 3,700 American personnel are assigned to detention operations, the equivalent of one full brigade out of the 17 American brigades now in Iraq, a figure that is scheduled to drop to 15 early next year.

Pentagon and military officials say the huge number of prisoners under American control is a constant source of tension with ordinary Iraqis two years after the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal came to light.

The issue of Iraqi detainees raises complex legal and diplomatic questions. The United States has pledged to conduct itself in keeping with international conventions, including one regarding torture that precludes handing prisoners to any country where they would face the likelihood of torture. Iraq is not a signatory to that treaty, and it is hard for the United States at this point to certify that some of these prisoners would not be tortured if put under the control of Iraqi jail-keepers.

The influx of detainees has swelled the population at the major American-run prisons to 119 percent of their ideal capacity, Gardner said. The military is holding 14,055 detainees in four prisons, a military spokesman, Lt. Aaron J. Henninger, said. In addition, 535 detainees are being held at the brigade or division level around the country.

At Abu Ghraib, where crowding contributed to the worst of the prisoner abuses that occurred in late 2003, there are 4,924 detainees, nearly 40 percent over what the military considers ideal capacity. At the largest center, Camp Bucca, in the south, the prison has been divided into compounds of about 150 people instead of 600 or more to allow guards to maintain better control. There are 7,795 detainees at the center. Camp Cropper, at the Baghdad airport, holds 140 prisoners. Fort Suse, a 1980s Russian barracks in northern Iraq, was turned into a prison in October and holds 1,196 detainees.

The increase in the number of imprisoned foreign fighters - to 465 from 391 in June - underscores the shifting profile of insurgents taken into custody recently. These fighters come mainly from Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Jordan, the command said. In a survey taken in October, of the more than 3,500 new detainees in American-operated prisons in Iraq since January, about 87 percent were deemed to pose a "high risk" or "extremely high risk" to American personnel, about twice the percentage from late last year, military officials said.

Many of the new prisoners are considered so dangerous that two review boards are now ordering them released in only 35 percent to 40 percent of the cases, Gardner said, down from 60 percent last year.

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