With Troop Rise, Iraqi Detainees Soar In Number

The number of detainees held by the American-led military forces in Iraq has swelled by 50 percent under the troop increase ordered by President Bush, with the inmate population growing to 24,500 today from 16,000 in February, according to American military officers in Iraq.

The detainee increase comes, they said, because American forces are operating in areas where they had not been present for some time, and because more units are able to maintain a round-the-clock presence in some areas. They also said more Iraqis were cooperating with military forces.

Nearly 85 percent of the detainees in custody are Sunni Arabs, the minority faction in Iraq that ruled the country under the government of Saddam Hussein; the other detainees are Shiites, the officers say.

Military officers said that of the Sunni detainees, about 1,800 claim allegiance to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown extremist group that American intelligence agencies have concluded is foreign-led. About 6,000 more identify themselves as takfiris, or Muslims who believe some other Muslims are not true believers. Such believers view Shiite Muslims as heretics.

Those statistics would seem to indicate that the main inspiration of the hard-core Sunni insurgency is no longer a desire to restore the old order - a movement that drew from former Baath Party members and security officials who had served under Mr. Hussein - and has become religious and ideological.

But the officers say an equally large number of Iraqi detainees say money is a significant reason they planted roadside bombs or shot at Iraqi and American-led forces.

"Interestingly, we've found that the vast majority are not inspired by jihad or hate for the coalition or Iraqi government - the vast majority are inspired by money," said Capt. John Fleming of the Navy, a spokesman for the multinational forces' detainee operations. The men are paid by insurgent leaders. "The primary motivator is economic - they're angry men because they don't have jobs," he said. "The detainee population is overwhelmingly illiterate and unemployed. Extremists have been very successful at spreading their ideology to economically strapped Iraqis with little to no formal education."

But the detention system itself often serves as a breeding ground for the insurgency and a training opportunity for those who, after they are released, may attack Iraqi or American-led forces, military officers say.

According to statistics supplied by the headquarters of Task Force 134, the American military unit in charge of detention operations in Iraq, there are about 280 detainees from countries other than Iraq. Of those, 55 are identified as Egyptian, 53 as Syrian, 37 as Saudi, 28 as Jordanian and 24 as Sudanese.

Some foreign fighters are difficult to identify with certainty, the officers said, because they tried to conceal their identities with forged documents and aliases.

About 800 juveniles are held in the American internment facilities. The officers said insurgent groups had used them to plant roadside bombs and to serve as lookouts, assuming that American and Iraqi forces and their allies would not see them as suspicious. Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, returned this week from a seven-day visit to Iraq that included tours of the detention facilities, and he said Friday that a six-room schoolhouse is operating for the education of the juveniles.

For the adults in detention, he said, the goal was to separate "the worst of the worst" from the other detainees, so hard-core insurgents and suspects have less chance to influence other detainees. A current goal is to set up a brick factory and a textile mill where adult detainees would work, he said.

Over all, the average length of detention is about a year, the officers said. So far this year, 3,334 detainees have been released, they said. Military officers in Iraq said the growing detainee population had not strained the internment system, nor had it hindered combat operations.

In preparation for the troop increase ordered by President Bush in January, plans were made to increase the number of detention officers and to build extra space for detainees. The task force is expanding the internment facilities at Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq, and Camp Cropper, near Baghdad, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The most notorious of the detention centers, at Abu Ghraib prison, is no longer used by American-led forces to hold captured insurgents. Images of American jailers abusing their detainees at Abu Ghraib stained the reputation of American fighting forces in Iraq.

Few reliable numbers exist for those detained by the Iraqi government, according to John Sifton, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization. The American military in Iraq will not provide numbers for detainees held by the government of Iraq.

"The allegations of abuse are far worse for Iraqi facilities than for those detainees in U.S. custody," he said. "It is difficult to know the Iraqi detainee population. There are both official and unofficial Iraqi detention systems."

Over all, he said, human rights organizations "have concerns about a 50 percent increase in detainees because it is 50 percent more people at risk of having been arbitrarily detained or, worse, of being handed over to Iraqi officers who might subject them to torture."

[Source: By Thom Shanker, The New York Times, Usa, 25Aug07]

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