Ryan Lucas / Associated Press – 2008-11-24 22:19:12
CAMP CROPPER, Iraq (November 2, 2008) — The U.S. military is rushing to build criminal cases against some 5,000 detainees it deems dangerous – including suspected members of al Qaeda in Iraq – because the proposed security pact with Iraq would end its right to hold prisoners without charge.
The agreement, which is to be voted on by Iraqi lawmakers Wednesday, is primarily intended to set a timetable calling for American troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. But it also calls for control of security matters to shift to Iraqi authorities.
If passed, the deal would mean U.S. troops could no longer hold people without charge as they have since the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Beginning Jan. 1, all detentions would have to be based on evidence, and the United States would have to prosecute prisoners in Iraqi courts or let them go.
“At the end of the day, if there’s not enough facts to justify a court case, then we’ll have to release,” said Brig. Gen. David Quantock, commander of the U.S. prison system in Iraq.
The Americans have evidence against only “a few hundred” of the most dangerous detainees, Quantock said, leaving open the possibility that thousands could find themselves back on Iraq’s streets soon.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Part of the challenge stems from differences between the U.S. and Iraqi legal systems. In the United States, forensic evidence is widely used in the courts. Not so in Iraq.
“We’ve got a number of guys right now that are covered in TNT (explosive residue). However, that’s not admissible in Iraqi court,” Quantock said. “What wins the day in Iraqi courts today is two eyewitness statements or a confession.”
The United States is training Iraqi forensic specialists and pushing to make such evidence more acceptable in court. Iraqi judges are slowly bending, but it is expected to take time before forensic evidence wins wide approval.
The transition comes amid a marked improvement in security that has boosted the confidence of Iraq’s government and allowed security-based detention to give way to a civilian justice system. It also would mark a major step toward shutting down a detention system that was tainted by the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where U.S. guards abused detainees.
U.S. forces are holding around 16,500 prisoners. The largest facility, with some 12,900 prisoners, is at Camp Bucca near the city of Basra, some 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Camp Cropper, on the sprawling U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport outside the capital, serves as the system’s logistical headquarters and houses some 2,000 prisoners. All detainees entering and leaving U.S. custody pass through Cropper.
The vast majority of those in U.S. custody are not considered dangerous, so the military is focusing its legal efforts on the 5,000 it deems a threat.
Iraq’s government will receive the names and other details of those in U.S. custody so it can issue arrest warrants for some of them. Quantock said he is confident that either the U.S. or Iraqi government will muster enough evidence to keep many of the most dangerous individuals behind bars.
But releasing the other 11,000 prisoners, who are not considered a serious threat, also poses a challenge.
The security agreement before Iraq’s parliament stipulates that detainees be let go “in a safe and orderly manner.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials are mindful of the dangers posed by dumping thousands of suspected insurgents, even if minor players, into communities already grappling with high unemployment.
“The fact that they are going back to their cities and homes might complicate the security situation,” said Haider al-Ibadi, a Shiite lawmaker with close ties to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “But we can do nothing to stop this because the authorities cannot arrest or keep any person in custody without evidence.”
The United States already has released some 16,000 prisoners over the past year, and plans to continue freeing prisoners at an average rate of 50 a day.
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