Camp Bucca Turns 180 Degrees From Abu Ghraib

Times Staff Writer

A winter fog rolled in off the Persian Gulf, coiling around searchlights and 12-foot-high fences rimmed with razor wire.

Dozens of listless Iraqi men lingered near the edges of one compound, wearing winter coats over dishdasha gowns and wool socks under plastic flip-flops. One sat wrapped in a plastic garbage bag as another prisoner trimmed his beard with an electric clipper.

It seems an unlikely setting for a hearts-and-minds campaign, but commanders at this fast-growing U.S. military prison camp near the Kuwaiti border describe it as just that. As the U.S. military shifts the bulk of its more than 7,000 Iraqi and foreign prisoners to Camp Bucca, commanders hope this model prison will bury the ghosts of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal.

"We want [the prisoners] to say, 'The Americans treated me all right and they're good-hearted people,' " said Col. Jim Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade.

The driving force behind these changes is the lingering damage from what has become known among the guards simply as "Abu" -- a catchall term for the abuse and humiliation of detainees in the prison west of Baghdad.

"Our reputation was tarnished ... both as a military and as a nation," said Army Maj. Gen. William H. Brandenburg, the new commander in charge of prisons in Iraq.

During a recent visit to Camp Bucca, he told a collection of guards and commanders, "We've got to stay on the moral high ground and do the right thing all the time, even when nobody's looking."

The lessons of Abu Ghraib resonate in all corners of the 100-acre Bucca compound, which serves as both laboratory and showcase for the Army's new approach to detention facilities.

Master Sgt. Jimmy James, who will become Bucca's warden this month, calls the camp "kind of a new animal that evolved from this war."

The tent cities that housed Abu Ghraib prisoners have largely been replaced by climate-controlled prefab huts -- a change that improves both living conditions and safety, because the inmates can no longer use the tent poles and stakes to fashion weapons. Packaged military rations have given way to hot meals, delivered to the prisoners in large coolers filled with steaming rice, soup and stew. A new hospital is being built in a series of connected double-wide trailers.

Inmates run their own classes on literacy, English and religion and hold soccer games so raucous that the guards sometimes think a riot is in progress. Some prisoners are lobbying to play inter-compound matches on a communal field, but the guards are leery of that one.

Each of the 10 compounds, which hold between 600 and 800 prisoners apiece, elects its own "mayor" who is in charge of maintaining order and acting as a liaison with the guards -- if necessary, informing on impending escape attempts or culprits in a violent crime.

Cigarettes, tea and access to radios are used as incentives for good behavior or revoked as punishment. Visiting family members are treated deferentially and supplied with water and snacks in the hope that they'll leave with a good impression.

The base commander, Col. Tim Houser, speaks of educating prisoners, teaching them social guidelines and making them into productive members of society. Then he grins at how "painfully American" the idea sounds.

The Iraqi Human Rights Ministry maintains an office just outside the prison fence. Ministry representatives spend three days a week on site to mediate concerns between inmates and guards, work with families and serve on the camp's version of a parole board.

Saad Sultan, the ministry's point man for the U.S. prison camps, said he was pleased with the changes made so far but considered Bucca's medical facilities lacking until the new hospital was finished. One of the most common complaints from the prisoners, he said, wasn't abuse or mistreatment. It was that the Pakistani cooks didn't know how to make Iraqi food.

On the other side of the camp, efforts continue to create a pleasant environment for the guards, partially to head off anyone taking out their frustrations on the inmates.

Stressful living conditions at Abu Ghraib were one of the reasons cited for the abuses, along with insufficient oversight, unclear command structure and the still-murky role of intelligence agents in encouraging the softening-up of prisoners.

At Bucca, the soldiers live in comfortable trailers, and a large recreation center offers a library, board games, pingpong, an Internet cafe, karaoke and a first-class gym.

A massive antenna, a remnant of the government radio station that once occupied the site, still dominates the soldiers' side of the prison, which was used as a POW camp for a short time after the war. It was reopened as a prison in the summer of 2003 as the insurgency started in earnest.

For the guards and administrators, many of whom are rotating into Iraq for the first time, the camp has been a pleasant surprise.

"I expected to live in a tent for a year on a cot," said Capt. Diana Stumpf. "I'm afraid to tell my family what it's like because they'll stop feeling sorry for me."

Brandenburg's arrival in Iraq in early December heralded a literal changing of the guard for the U.S. detention system in Iraq. The command team brought in last spring by his predecessor, Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, is mostly rotating out, and detention operations are facing what one officer called "almost an entirely new chain of command."

There's a new superintendent for military police at both Abu Ghraib and Bucca and a new Bucca warden. In the coming months, three-fourths of the guards will be going home.

The new team faces a challenge fraught with all the traditional complexities of a long-term prison environment: violence, religious tension and shifting factional dynamics. They must deal with escape attempts that average two to three per month, often in fog so thick the tower guards can't see the ground and must shift to foot patrols to spot prisoners trying to breach the fence.

In mid-October, just as the new MP unit was arriving on duty, fighting broke out between Sunni and Shiite prisoners.

The dispute centered on differences over observance of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and may have been fueled by general edginess among fasting prisoners craving caffeine and nicotine.

Commanders decided to separate the Shiites and Sunnis. But when Sultan threatened to pull his human rights team in protest, the separation was confined to the problematic compound.

Now Houser, the base commander, admits that they face a dilemma.

Religious separation doesn't quite mesh with the stated U.S. goal of fostering a unified Iraqi society. But reintegrating the Shiite prisoners into other compounds could cause further trouble.

"We're pretty sensitive to anything ... that could upset the dynamic," Houser said.

Brown, the MP commander and a Santa Monica native, recalls what he terms a "wannabe riot" in one of the compounds in early December. After two prisoners were sentenced to isolation for a failed escape attempt, their compound mates rose up in solidarity.

The compound had not yet had its huts built, and prisoners collapsed their tents to make spears from the poles and shanks from the stakes. They formed a shouting phalanx, using mattresses as shields and encouraging nearby compounds to follow suit.

The guards didn't fire a shot, instead putting on their own show of force, gathering in strength and patrolling the compound's perimeter with guard dogs. Finally, two firetrucks were brought out, and the prisoners dispersed around 3 a.m. before the hoses could be turned on them.

"Firetrucks," Brandenburg said with a laugh, "are a pretty good dampener on a cold night."

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