U.S., Citing Abuse in Iraqi Prisons, Holds Detainees

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 24 - 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 United States 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 this week from Iraq.
The comments by General Gardner come in the aftermath of two recent raids of Iraqi government detention centers that uncovered scores of abused prisoners. They also follow 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 three of the main American-operated prisons in Iraq remain severely overcrowded despite a $50 million expansion that is nearly finished and when Americans are training Iraqis to take over detention duties.
Pentagon and military officials say that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, has expressed frustrations over the heavy 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.
The number of violent detainees has grown to more than 14,000 from about 8,000 in January. The crowding has been compounded by a growing backlog of prisoners, now about 3,100 people, who are waiting for Iraq's fledgling judicial system to hear their cases.
General Gardner, who took command on Nov. 30, expressed optimism that the inspections of Iraqi detention sites would not unduly delay the American 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 exact timetable has been approved. But other senior military officials said turning over all Iraqi prisoners to the Iraqis could stretch into 2007.
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.
General Gardner said that he was painfully aware of the legacy of Abu Ghraib, but insisted that conditions at the American-run prisons in Iraq had improved strikingly. "Abu Ghraib was criminal and I was appalled," he said. "We've come a long way since then."
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 jailkeepers.
The influx of detainees has swelled the population at the major American-run prisons to 119 percent of their ideal capacity, General Gardner said. As of this week, the military is holding 14,055 detainees in four prisons, a military spokesman, Lt. Aaron J. Henninger, said. In addition, 535 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 there.
Camp Cropper, at the Baghdad airport, holds 140 prisoners, including dozens of so-called high-value detainees. Fort Suse, a 1980's 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. American officials this week were reclassifying all detainees as either low, medium or high-risk prisoners.
Many of the new prisoners are considered so dangerous that two review boards, each staffed by six Iraqi and three allied officials, are now ordering them released in only 35 to 40 percent of the cases, General Gardner said, down from 60 percent last year. Each panel reviews about 400 cases a week, he said.
Under rules put in place in June 2004, the United States must release detainees held in American custody after 18 months unless the Iraqi prime minister and General Casey agree to continue to hold them for a specified period, said Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, another military spokesman. About 130 detainees face hearings under this process in January and a similar number in February, he said in an e-mail message.
The transfer of the American-run detention centers will require training and equipping Iraqis to operate the prisons.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad, said via an e-mail message that the transition plan had four basic steps.
First is instruction on the basics of how to be a prison guard, a course taught by visiting American Justice Department instructors. So far, about 300 guards designated to work side by side with American jailers at internment centers run by American forces have completed the program, Colonel Johnson said. Another 450 guards are currently in the course, and the next session is expected to include approximately 150 Iraqi guards.
The second step involves Iraqi guards actually working alongside guards at detention centers under American control. The 300 guards who completed the classroom instruction in October are now working at the Fort Suse center with American guards, Colonel Johnson said.
Camp Bucca is scheduled to receive 150 Iraqi guards this month, and Fort Suse will receive another 150 Iraqi guards before the New Year, bringing the total to 450. Early next year, Camp Bucca will receive an additional 300 Iraqi guards, also bringing the total there to 450, Colonel Johnson said.
Step three, he said, involves Iraqi guards taking the lead of detention operations under the supervision of the American forces.
"This will allow us to work continually with them to ensure all standards of humane treatment and quality of care are maintained," Colonel Johnson said. "This process mirrors what we are doing for security transition across the country."
In the final stage, he said, "oversight will be reduced until the Iraqis are ready to completely assume control."
No specific timetable for the final transition has been set. "The transition will be based on meeting standards, not on a timeline," he said.