A distinct vibe emanates from behind the 15-ft.-high chain fences reinforced with rebar and rimmed by razor wire that encircle the so-called “Waterfront” compound at Camp Bucca. It’s different from the other compounds in this sprawling 100-acre, open-air U.S detention center close to the Kuwaiti border, the largest in Iraq, which houses a little over 10,000 of the 13,832 detainees currently in U.S custody. In other compounds hundreds of detainees mingle in expansive recreation yards, enjoy access to books, television and chess sets, and aren’t locked in at night. There is noise from those sectors; the sound emanating from the Waterfront, however, is silence.
The 3,000 inmates confined to the Waterfront are kept in climate-controlled shipping containers with toilet facilities for 18 hours a day. There are about seven detainees per container, and up to 40 are allowed into one of the many recreation yards at any one time. “These guys are bad guys; they’re the worst of the worst,” says Brigadier General David Quantock, the commander of Task Force 134 which oversees the detention system in Iraq. He walks past a handful of detainees playing table tennis. “These are the guys the Iraqi government wants.”
But to get them, there has to be enough evidence to either hold them on warrants or charge them under Iraqi law. Otherwise the new U.S-Iraqi security pact that came into effect in January demands that they be released. “Before, if we felt that we had a good basis to believe the individual was an imperative risk to the security of Iraq, that was good enough,” says Quantock. “After 1 January [of this year], it is not.”
And so, U.S investigators from the CIA, FBI and other American intelligence agencies, along with their Iraqi partners, have pored over detainee case files since October, chasing down leads, examining forensic evidence and looking for witnesses to build legal cases against all the inmates of Camp Bucca. Some 7,000 files have been reviewed, with another 3,000 expected to be completed by May. About 2,400 detainee cases are in the Iraqi court system right now. The U.S has largely succeeded in persuading Iraqi judges to expand the rules of evidence to include forensics such as bomb residue and fingerprints, rather than just the traditional requirements of two witness statements or a confession to secure a conviction. As a result, conviction rates have skyrocketed, from about 30% in October, to over 90%, according to Quantock.
Meanwhile, because of the new U.S-Iraq security agreement that went into effect on Jan. 1, a first batch of 1,500 inmates were released from Camp Bucca last month, at a rate of about 50 a day. The marked improvement in security across Iraq has meant that more detainees are being released than captured. Last year, 18,600 low-threat inmates were freed from Bucca, while only half of that figure were taken in. Of those released, 497 were transferred to the Iraqi government.
Still, that’s not good enough for some Iraqis, especially Sunnis worried about their co-religionists, who make up 80% of Bucca’s detainee population. The Tawafuk Front, the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc with 44 of the legislature’s 275 seats, says it doesn’t trust the Shi’ite-led government and wants all of the detainees immediately released, even “the minority” they acknowledge might be al-Qaeda members. “Even if you released an al-Qaeda emir [leader], he won’t be able to wreak havoc in the same way he did three years ago,” says Omar Almashhadani, a spokesman for the Front, citing improvements in the Iraqi security forces and their intelligence gathering capabilities. “The problem,” he adds, “is that some detainees are going to be transferred from a prison that, to a certain degree, respects human rights, to another that doesn’t. We have less confidence in the Iraqi government than we do in the American troops.”
The good news is that the ghost of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal seems to have been laid to rest. The bad news is that detainee families from across the sectarian spectrum don’t trust their government. Salam Baten al-Attiya, 30, a Shi’ite from Sadr City, was at Bucca last week to visit his brother Ali, who was picked up by U.S troops on suspicion of being a member of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. “My brother has been here for a year and a month; keep him here for another year and a month but don’t hand him over to the Iraqis,” Salam says, as other Iraqis gathered around him and echoed his sentiment. “He will be tortured at the hands of the Iraqis. They are corrupt and will make us pay bribes so that they don’t torture him.”
Human rights groups including Amnesty International have warned that detainees are at risk of torture, or even execution, if they are handed over to Baghdad. They have also raised concerns about “appalling” internment conditions as well as a backlog of judicial cases and questions as to how free and fair the judicial process is. Overcrowding is a pressing concern. The Iraqi prison system is operating at 103% capacity, Quantock says, and as a result, more than 500 convicted criminals are being held at Bucca on behalf of the Iraqi Ministry of Justice until space opens up. Says a senior Iraqi Ministry of Justice official who requested anonymity: “We have a lot of pressure on us, from political parties, human rights groups and detainee families, to get through the cases as soon as possible, but we have a shortage of judges and [prison] space.”
Commanders at Bucca say they’ll only hand over detainees to the nine Iraqi facilities that are regularly inspected by the U.S Justice Department and meet basic humanitarian conditions. They’re also building a new prison in Taji, north of Baghdad, with 5,600 beds. The plan is to continue to release most of the Bucca detainees and transition the high-threat inmates over to Taji, train Iraqi staff there and then turn the entire facility over to the Iraqi corrections system. Bucca is expected to be closed by July, and the U.S wants to be out of the detention business here by early next year. But it’s going to take more than just additional bed spaces to help boost the Iraqi prison system.
“The problem is that Iraqis don’t realize that even if the detainees are transferred to Iraqi courts and prisons, it’s not like in the past,” says Sgt. Assaad, an Iraqi corrections officer who was monitoring detainee family visitations at Bucca. “Saddam’s days are over, torture is over. We will treat everyone based on the law.” Maybe that’s what some people inside and outside the wire at Camp Bucca are really afraid of. With reporting by Mazin Ezzat