Iraqis jail many innocents
USA Today
By Sean D. Naylor, Military Times
May 6, 2007

BAGHDAD — U.S. officers here say they are increasingly troubled by the high number of innocent Iraqis being detained and held — in some cases for many months — by the Iraqi army.

Several officers who serve as advisers to the Iraqis said at least half the people detained by the Iraqi army in Baghdad are innocent.

And the advisers say their close association with the units doing the detaining is placing the Americans on the horns of an ethical dilemma: On one hand, they are forbidden from taking unilateral action in order to free the prisoners; on the other hand, by not freeing innocent detainees being held by their close allies, they feel complicit in what some termed "a war crime."

In at least one case, a U.S. officer received a letter of admonishment from a general officer after taking it upon himself to free 35 prisoners he knew had been wrongly detained.

All U.S. officers interviewed for this story also said that the practice of locking up people who have done nothing wrong is counterproductive, and directly contrary to the Army's new counterinsurgency field manual.

"In (counterinsurgency) environments, distinguishing an insurgent from a civilian is difficult and often impossible," the manual states. "Treating a civilian like an insurgent, however, is a sure recipe for failure."

U.S. and Iraqi army officers said the problems worsened March 1, when, as part of the new Baghdad security plan, the U.S. military transferred authority for running operations in Baghdad to the Iraqi military and the Iraqis assumed responsibility for detainees. Prior to March 1, U.S. officers down to the battalion level had the authority to order the release of detainees, according to a senior U.S. Army official in Baghdad.

Reasons behind detaining

U.S. officers see two main reasons why the Iraqi army detains so many innocents.

The first is what some termed the Iraqis' "dragnet" approach of arresting all military-age males in the vicinity of an attack on U.S. or Iraqi forces, or of a large weapons cache at the time of its discovery by Iraqi troops.

Lt. Col. Steve Duke, leader of the U.S. military transition team of advisers for the 5th Brigade of the Iraqi army's 6th Division, cited two recent examples of this dynamic at work.

In late March, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 10th Iraqi Army Division detained 54 men in Baghdad after an improvised explosive device attack, he said.

"If you were near the IED, or you could spell IED, you were detained," he said.

It took "a couple of weeks" before the Iraqis released any of them, he said.

"The Iraqis are not good at field interviews ... and there's a perception that subordinate commanders do not have the authority to release, but they do have the authority to detain," Duke said.

Authority to release any detainee rests with Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abud Ganbar Hashimi, who heads the Baghdad Operational Command, said Maj. Michael Philipak, a U.S. Army intelligence officer who advises the Iraqi army 6th Division.

The second reason cited by U.S. officers is that the Iraqi defense and interior ministries are drawing up lists of individuals to be detained and sending them down to brigade and even battalion levels of the Iraqi army, all based on "intelligence" that is never shared with either Iraqi commanders or their U.S. counterparts, according to American and Iraqi officers.

"In the old days — and now — we are the ones who create intelligence according to information we receive from sources," said Capt. Amjad Abbas Hasson, intelligence officer for 3rd Battalion, 5th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division.

"Back in the day the orders were to investigate the targets," Amjad added. "Now it's always 'detain,' never 'investigate.'"

'50 percent innocent'

The murkiness of the system and the fact that the target lists are overwhelmingly made up of Sunni Muslims has led many U.S. and Iraqi officers to suspect that sectarian bias in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'a-dominated government is driving the process.

Duke estimated that at least 50%, probably more" of the people detained by 5th Brigade were innocent. Of those, he said, the innocence of at least half could easily be determined "with an immediate, on-the-spot interview," avoiding the need to enter them into the system.

But the 5th Brigade commander denied that his men ever detained anyone without cause. "I don't think there are orders being issued to arrest innocent people with no evidence," Col. Ghasan Khalid said, adding that he had never received such orders, nor had any of his subordinates.

"We'd never detain somebody without evidence or without a source indicating that the person was helping terrorists," he said.

The 50% figure was also cited by Falah Karim Yosif, a member of the predominantly Sunni National Dialog Party and the senior adviser to the chairman of the Iraqi parliament, Mahmoud al-Mash'hadany.

"Fifty percent of detainees in Iraqi jails now are innocent, and 50% are guilty," he said.

Falah echoed U.S. officers' concerns that this process was creating more enemies than it was taking off the streets. "If someone is innocent, and he's in jail for 12 to 18 months just because it's a slow process, there's no way you can fix that person — he'll be a hateful person after that," he said.

Release delayed

In January, Duke found himself facing a difficult decision when 5th Brigade got a tip about a large munitions cache in a house. When the troops arrived, they found about 15 artillery shells and about 10 to 15 Katyusha rockets. They also noticed there were 36 civilian men working next door for a communications company, loading satellite receivers onto trucks. In fact, it had been their supervisor who called in the tip.

It was immediately clear to Duke and Ghasan that the civilians, who included several teenagers, had nothing to do with the cache next door. But the Iraqi Ministry of Defense ordered Ghasan to detain all the civilians.

The troops took the detainees to the 5th Brigade headquarters, were they weren't even locked up, but put in the conference room. The next day, Duke asked Ghasan when they would be released. "Maybe tonight," was the answer. But when morning arrived, the detainees were still there, and the answer was the same.

Three days later after the detainees had not been released, Duke decided to take matters into his own hands. "I didn't have the authority [to free the men], but I had the means," he said. He got one of his trucks, and asked the supervisor, who had not been detained, where the men wanted to go. Then, without telling Ghasan, he loaded the men up and drove them out of the Green Zone to freedom.

When he found out what had happened, Ghasan protested loudly to Duke, who got the feeling that most of Ghasan's remonstrations were for show.

However, as the news traveled up the Iraqi chain of command, more protests were made, and Duke's chain of command in the 1st Cavalry Division decided that the Iraqis had to know that he had suffered some sort of punishment. The message the division leadership gave him was, "What you did was wrong, and we have to do something about it," he said. The end result was a letter of admonishment, said several Army sources.

Duke said he had no regrets. However, he said, he was also sympathetic to the position his commanders were in, because they didn't want to encourage U.S. advisers to interfere with Iraqi decisions.

"That's a dangerous genie to let out of the bottle," Duke said, adding that he supported his chain of command's actions. "I agreed with what they had to do."

Credibility at a cost

The price paid in credibility by the coalition forces each time an innocent man is taken away from his family for what several sources said was an average of almost two months before being released is what concerns U.S. officers here.

"It's one of the most important challenges facing the Iraqi army," Duke said. "They're better than they were three or four months ago at understanding the problem, but they're not getting better yet at dealing with it. But step one is recognizing that you have a problem.

"How long will it take to regain the trust of the people?" he said. "That's what concerns me the most. In order to be successful, the people have got to trust the army, and the army's got to care about the people.

"Right now, we're not at acceptable levels in either of those."

Original Text