BAGHDAD — Hopes are fading for early release of the large number of Iraqis detained under the so-called surge.
The ‘surge’ is the new effort by U.S.-led coalition forces to crack down on terror suspects.
The number of detainees held by the U.S. military has increased by more than 50 percent since the U.S. administration announced the surge six months ago, bringing the detainee population to at least 24,500, according to U.S. military officers in Iraq. The officers have said the detainee population was 16,000 in February of this year.
The U.S. military unit in charge of the detention centres in Iraq, Task Force 134, reported Aug. 24 that the average length of detention for all detainees is about a year. It reported also that there are about 800 juveniles held in detention facilities.
Estimates of the total number of Iraqi detainees vary, but most Iraqis believe the number is more than 50,000. According to Iraqi sources, as well as the U.S. military, the vast majority of detainees are Sunni Arabs from the western areas of Iraq. Most of them are detained without any charge or court warrant.
John Sifton, researcher for Human Rights Watch, told reporters Aug. 24 that “the allegations of abuse are far worse for Iraqi facilities than for those detainees in U.S. custody. It is difficult to know the Iraqi detainee population. There are both official and unofficial Iraqi detention systems.”
Sifton said Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations “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.”
Sifton added that there are no reliable numbers provided by the Iraqi government on the number of detainees, and that the U.S. military will not provide the numbers either.
“My three sons were selling vegetables in Baghdad at the wholesale market when Americans took them away over a year ago,” 55-year-old Saadiya from the Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad told IPS. “We learned three months later that they were taken to Bucca prison near Basra. They were only farmers, and now they are listed as terrorists just because they are Sunni.”
Stories like this are recounted all over the western areas of Iraq, where Sunni Arabs are the dominant population.
“A roadside bomb exploded near our house and killed three Americans,” Sumaya, a woman from the Dora area of southwest Baghdad told IPS. “Then American tanks came with hundreds of soldiers and arrested over 30 men from the neighbourhood, including my husband. We were asleep when the blast occurred at 5 am, and it was curfew hours, but they still wanted us to tell them who did it. Now I have to work and feed my four children.”
“A force from the Ministry of Interior took 45 men from our village nine months ago and we still do not know their whereabouts,” Farhan Abbas told IPS. Abbas is from Youssufiya, 25 km south of Baghdad, and was visiting Baghdad in hope of finding information about the people detained from his neighbourhood.
“We lost hope for them because when we went to the ministry to ask about them, they denied their arrest and told us it must be the militias dressed in uniform,” said Abbas. “We argued that the force came in the ministry’s vehicles, but they told us to get lost or else they would arrest us too.”
Two vice-presidents of Iraq, Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shia with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and Tariq al-Hashimi of the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front, recently visited Camp Cropper, a U.S. military detention centre near Baghdad International airport.
Al-Sharqiya television reported that while Mehdi did not talk to detainees, Hashimi talked with several of them at length and promised that their cases would be looked into shortly.
“You are better off here than outside,” Hashimi said to the detainees. “It is much safer here than outside, believe me.”
“What a wonderful deputy president we have,” Ahmad Ali from Ramadi who was visiting Baghdad told IPS. “He thinks people are better off in jail than at home.”
The Iraqi Accord Front withdrew from Maliki’s government Aug. 1 because several of their demands had not been met. The first was release of at least 80 percent of the detainees who are believed to be innocent.
(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)