BAGHDAD, Iraq - The U.S.-led dragnet for insurgents catches the harmless
much more often than the dangerous, according to military figures, helping breed
resentment among Iraqis who often languish in prison for months before the system
sets them free.
Nearly 75 percent of all detainees arrested are being set free because
there is not enough evidence that they pose a threat, according to the Army.
Many -- about half -- are freed within days of their arrests by the units or
divisions that captured them. But thousands of others are sent to major prisons,
such as Abu Ghraib, where they are waiting an average of six months before their
release, according to 1st Lt. Kristy Miller, spokeswoman for the military's
detention system in Iraq.
From March 2003 through early last month, 42,228 Iraqi detainees had been sent
into the system, and most had been released. As of Friday, there were 12,184
in American detention, thousands of whom are also likely to be released after
their cases are reviewed, given the current trend.
American officials say Iraq is the main front in the fight against terrorism.
But the wide sweep for suspects in Iraq produces anti-American rage and political
Last month, in an effort to encourage Sunni Muslims to support the draft Iraqi
constitution, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani asked for a mass release of detainees.
The U.S. military responded by setting free 1,000 prisoners.
Those releases were approved by a standing committee of American military lawyers
and employees of the Iraqi ministries of justice, interior and human rights.
The committee meets three days a week to plow through hundreds of files and
recommend which detainees should be set free.
Two Iraqis on the committee described common American mistakes that result
in Iraqis being wrongly incarcerated. The committee members, both lawyers, were
made available for interviews after a request to the Iraqi government by Cox
Newspapers. The interviews were granted on the condition that the members not
be identified because of the risk they would face if people know they participate
in decisions about detained Iraqis.
Among the cases they described, American troops arrested one Iraqi man because
he had an Arabic poster showing a beheaded man. The soldiers thought it was
the sinister propaganda of terrorists and hauled him to Abu Ghraib. Months later,
the Iraqis reviewing the case quickly recognized that the poster was a benign
tribute to Imam Hussein, a Shiite hero beheaded in the 7th century. The committee
ordered his release.
Another Iraqi was selling copies of Witness, a popular tabloid newspaper peddling
gossip about the old dictatorship. Troops saw the cover photo of Saddam Hussein
and took the man away for months until his case was reviewed and he was set
Several men in the city of Fallujah were arrested when soldiers thought an
elderly woman's panicked call to her grandchild was an alert that kidnappers
were nearby. She was actually attempting to shield the child from American troops.
The military says it has improved training for troops in making arrests and
screening detainees, with U.S. lawyers reviewing their cases repeatedly starting
from the first days after Iraqis are arrested.
"Everybody we have detained or will detain we detain for specific reasons.
Based on intelligence or information, we had reason to believe that the individual
was conducting an attack, was conducting activities as part of the insurgency,"
said coalition spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch. "I believe the Iraqi people,
the population of Iraq, knows we are conducting these operations to better their
But the detentions are a hot political issue in Iraq. Many political leaders
-- including American allies -- have denounced the frequent arrests.
Iraqis reacted angrily in May when American troops mistakenly roughed up and
arrested the leader of the largest Sunni political party, which American diplomats
had been trying to entice into the government.
Saleh Hadi al-Zobai, 25, was a security guard at a truck depot when American
troops last October handcuffed and hooded him, arresting him for having a Kalashnikov
rifle -- standard equipment here for a security guard. He spent months in prisons,
where he developed diabetes and anger toward American troops he once credited
for ousting Saddam Hussein.
He recalled months in Camp Bucca, a crowded camp where rock-throwing riots
would erupt. There, innocents were mixed with hardened fighters. He was released
by the review board after signing a pledge not to commit violence.
"I was nervous. I was sick. I was mad. People were crying. Most had nervous
breakdowns," he said. "When we talked among the prisoners, people
would say it would be a crime if you got out and did not fight" the Americans.