Prisoner Is Released Despite Evidence of Role in Bombing

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Prisoner Is Released Despite Evidence of Role in Bombing

WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 - In January, American military and law enforcement personnel discovered evidence connecting a 25-year-old Iraqi detainee, Abass Hussein Alwan al-Amry, to a roadside bomb that had detonated in Baghdad, wounding several Iraqis.

It was the first forensic match of a bomb and an insurgent bomb making suspect in Iraq, three Army officials said. Further investigation tied Mr. Amry to other bomb attacks, one of which is believed to have caused American casualties, another American official said.

But Mr. Amry soon went free.

He was mistakenly released in June after a sergeant failed to notice a small notation in his case file calling for him to be held indefinitely, the Army officials said.

The episode illustrates the difficulty the military faces, with a rapidly growing prison population that totals nearly 13,000 in American military custody and an additional 12,000 held by Iraqi authorities, in distinguishing insurgents from people rounded up who pose no security threat.

Mr. Amry's inadvertent release, which prompted several internal investigations and was the subject of briefings to senior Pentagon officials, occurred after unsuccessful efforts by military intelligence personnel to get him transferred from Camp Bucca, the largest of the three main American-run detention centers, to Abu Ghraib, a site with higher security. The mishaps led the military to overhaul a database to better highlight incriminating evidence on prisoners and to require a senior Army officer to scrutinize each case file before a detainee is released, the Army officers said.

(At the request of the military, The New York Times agreed not to disclose the nature of the evidence linking Mr. Amry to the bomb because Pentagon officials said doing so could alert other bomb makers in Iraq and set back operations aimed at capturing them.)

"We just flat out didn't have the right tools in place to red flag a detainee," said an Army general in detainee operations in Iraq. "We have since altered a lot of things."

The case is also a source of continuing tension between intelligence officers and those responsible for detainees over whether procedural changes are needed to prevent accidental releases. Several military officials agreed to discuss some details of the case on the condition that they not be identified, citing restrictions on discussing classified information.

The handling of prisoners, a delicate issue because of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, took on renewed urgency on Nov. 13 when American troops raided an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad and found that at least one-third of the about 170 prisoners showed signs of torture.

American military officials in Baghdad also revealed that two of the four suicide bombers who attacked hotels in Jordan on Nov. 9 had the same names as Iraqis who had been released from American-run detention centers after Army officials decided there were no grounds to hold them.

Until the Jordan bombings, much of the pressure on American authorities - from Iraqis with relatives in custody and from United Nations officials - has been to expedite the release of Iraqi detainees, many of whom are held for long periods with no access to fledgling Iraqi courts. A United Nations report this month noted that "the overall number of detainees continued to increase due to mass arrests," a situation that it said needed "urgent" remedy.

The Army says that while it continues to arrest large numbers of insurgents, it is also releasing many.

"We continue to have detainee releases every 7 to 10 days," said Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a spokesman for the Army's detainee operations command in Iraq. "Since the end of August, we have released approximately 2,800 security detainees."

When American troops captured Mr. Amry in October 2004, they had little reason to think he was more than a foot soldier in the insurgency.

He was captured in Anbar Province in a group of armed Iraqis who appeared to be preparing to attack American forces, records reviewed by Army officials said. Bomb-making material was found with the group but not in his possession, an Army intelligence official said.

At a holding center near Falluja, Mr. Amry said he was a student who sometimes drove a taxi and a truck. Soldiers took his picture and other identifying information and sent him to Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

Before the arrest, the Combined Exploitation Cell, a squad of civilian bomb experts and military intelligence personnel formed to identify bomb makers, sent remnants of an explosive device that had gone off in Baghdad a year earlier to a laboratory near Washington for analysis. When the lab results were compared with a database on Iraqi detainees, Mr. Amry's name popped up. After Army intelligence personnel in the Washington area were informed of the results in January, they notified Task Force 134, the Army command in Iraq responsible for detainees, a military intelligence officer said.

"We had individuals specifically telling Task Force 134, 'Don't let this guy go,' " the officer said, adding that the case received much attention because it was the first proof that use of forensic analysis might actually help stem bomb attacks.

Colonel Rudisill, a spokesman for the task force, said it had been told only that there was a "possible link between Alwan and the I.E.D. incident," a reference to improvised explosive device. He said the computer system used to keep track of detainees, the Biometric Automated Toolset, did not easily "allow a user to see if new information had been added to a detainee's file."

The colonel said some evidence suggested Mr. Amry was not a bomb maker, but someone who hid bombs.

A more complete forensic analysis confirmed the preliminary results, the Army intelligence official said. Mr. Amry was later linked to several bombings, one of which "may have involved U.S. military casualties," another official said, refusing to provide details of these attacks.

But in March, when his case came before the Combined Review and Release Board, a panel of American and Iraqi officials who examine evidence against detainees, his dossier did not have his Biometric Automated Toolset file, the Army intelligence official said. The only indication that he was suspected of making bombs was a notation that read "M.I. hold," meaning that military intelligence did not want him released, he added. A sergeant charged with reviewing the files before they went to the review board did not notice the entry, the general involved in detainee operations said. The panel ordered Mr. Amry released into the custody of a relative, who was supposed to vouch that he would not rejoin the insurgents, the officials said. Mr. Amry was then sent to Abu Ghraib briefly for processing and released.

Only after he was freed on June 16 did military officials realize their error and act to prevent other mistaken releases. Despite operations aimed at recapturing him, Mr. Amry is still at large, they say.