U.S.-run detention camps in Iraq have become a breeding ground for extremists where Islamic militants recruit and train supporters, and use violence against perceived foes, say former inmates and Iraqi officials.
Extremists conducted regular indoctrination lectures, and in some cases destroyed televisions supplied by the Americans for use with educational videos, banned listening to music on radios, forbade smoking and stoked tensions between Sunni and Shiite detainees, they said.
Iraqis swept up in security operations and held indefinitely while the Americans try to determine whether they have any links to the insurgency are susceptible to the extremists’ message, former detainees said.
Their accounts of life in Camp Cropper, the main U.S. detention center at the Baghdad airport, indicate that three years after the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison, the U.S. is still struggling to find a balance in the way it runs its detention system.
Prisons have long served as an incubator for radicals, and mass roundups by the U.S. military after the 2003 invasion are now blamed for antagonizing Iraq’s Sunni Arab population and feeding the insurgency.
After the Abu Ghraib scandal, the U.S. pledged to speed up processing of detainees, the vast majority of whom the International Committee of the Red Cross said had been wrongly arrested. But as U.S. troops continue to confront the insurgency, the inmate population has soared, to 18,000, from 10,000 in 2003.
U.S. military officials acknowledge that they are battling militants for the hearts and minds of detainees, but deny accusations that they have lost control inside the prisons, or that detainees are treated harshly. They say they have instituted counterinsurgency and educational programs, and are gearing up to launch a more direct effort to confront extremists next month.
Iraqi officials also struggle with a crowded system where prisoners can languish as long as two years before getting a trial. But they say the Americans have allowed militants to flourish in their facilities.
“It looks like a terrorist academy now,” said Saad Sultan, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry’s liaison to U.S. and Iraqi prisons. “There’s a huge number of these students. They study how they can kill in their camps. And we protect them, feed them, give them medical care.
“The Americans have no solution to this problem,” he said. “This has been going on for a year or two, we have been telling them.”
A former detainee at Camp Cropper, where Hussein and other high-profile prisoners have been held, said he once watched Sunni militants attack a former police officer they suspected of being an informer. He said six men, their faces hidden by towels, gathered around the victim in a dormitory at 2 a.m.
Two kept a lookout for U.S. soldiers while one man swung a sock stuffed with rocks at the inmate’s head, he said. The man tried to get up, but another pressed him down with a foot to the chest. The attackers pummeled his head, spattering themselves with his blood, until he lost consciousness.
Other prisoners then dragged the victim to the front of the hall, where the U.S. guards would find him.
“They said this man was an informer; he had been put there to spy for the Americans,” said the former prisoner, who was working as a guard for a secular political party when U.S. forces detained him and seven colleagues. They were held for three months.
He identified himself only as Abu Usama; he and his colleagues, who recounted their story last week, two months after their release, spoke on condition that their full names and the name of the political party not be identified because they feared being detained again by the Americans.
Abu Usama said he had heard that the former police officer died from the beating, but that could not be confirmed.
Americans in ‘denial’
An Iraqi official who works on issues related to the Sunni insurgency said he had received a report that a moderate Sunni fighter had been killed at Camp Cropper. “The report came back to me that the Americans were in complete denial,” he said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “They said, ‘No such thing happened. Everything is under control.’ That’s not true.”
American military officials say the Army has deployed counterinsurgency teams inside Camp Cropper and southern Iraq’s Camp Bucca, the two main U.S. detention facilities.
“We are very concerned about insurgent efforts to recruit and convert detainees inside our theater detention facilities,” said Capt. Phillip Valenti, a spokesman for detainee operations. He said counterinsurgency teams work in each compound “to identify recruiters, leaders, converters, Sharia courts and take actions to interdict their efforts.”
“We conduct these operations at both Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca, and also integrate our efforts across camps to further disrupt these operations,” Valenti said.
Five inmates were killed in internal violence at U.S. facilities last year, and the military was making an effort to identify and prosecute detainees involved in violence, he said.
At Camp Cropper, six inmates have died since 2003, including one Thursday, according to the military. The latest death is under investigation.
Since the Abu Ghraib scandal, the U.S. military said, it has tried to foil recruitment by insurgent groups by keeping hard-core militants away from other detainees.
A year ago, the U.S. military instituted a rehabilitation program that consisted of educating detainees about Iraq’s new political process, Sultan, the Human Rights ministry liaison, said. However, counter-terrorism experts say that the U.S. military needs to take a far more comprehensive approach.
“Simple classes ... aren’t sufficient. It has to be part of a broader, comprehensive program,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “De-Nazification efforts in post-World War II Germany involved more than a civics class.
“Our failure to pursue such programs is indicative of the low priority we have always inexplicably given to acquiring detailed psychological, demographic and cultural intelligence from the detainees in Iraq,” Hoffman said. “All that is valued by us is hard tactical intelligence -- when there is a wealth of other information that we can obtain that in the long run could be decisive strategically.”
‘A psychological war’
So far, Sultan said, radicals have sabotaged the U.S. program of civics and literacy classes.
“It’s very difficult when you have a one-hour class, and you spend the next 23 hours with the imam,” he said.
Abu Usama and his colleagues said that after they were detained in November, they were sent to Camp Cropper, home to 3,600 prisoners. Four were sent to the camp’s Shiite side and the other four, including Abu Usama and a colleague who identified himself as Abu Tiba, were sent to the Sunni section.
Abu Tiba said he felt caught between the militants and the Americans.
“It was a psychological war from both the Americans and the religious extremists,” he said. “It was terrifying.” He said he worried about the U.S. soldiers who shouted at him, and the militants who stowed razor wire to use in fights.
The most powerful figure was a young imam known as Abu Hamza, who they said had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The Americans had allowed a dangerous cleric to stay in a barracks with ordinary Sunnis, they said.
“He used to give lectures in the morning and night,” Abu Usama said. “Anyone who didn’t attend the lectures would have a mark against him.”
In his lectures, the young radical denounced the Iraqi government, U.S. soldiers, and the entire political process, he said. He also banned smoking in the hall.
“The problem was the Americans didn’t know what was going on. They allowed him to preach because they believed in religious freedom,” said Abu Usama, 43. The preacher’s core supporters were young men who had been radicalized in the ferment after Hussein’s ouster.
“Abu Hamza’s followers tried to win people over by offering them money and cars when they got out of camp,” he said, adding that he had used the prestige his age gives him to rebuff a recruitment effort from a younger member of his tribe, the powerful Dulaimi clan.
The radicals preyed on men who were being held indefinitely, without knowing whether they would be charged. “You’d spend three months not charged with anything and you were innocent -- they could get you,” Abu Usama said.
Adnan Nabi, a 42-year-old cleric loyal to radical Muqtada Sadr, presided over the Shiite side of the camp, said another of the ex-detainees, who identified himself as Abu Mustafa. He said Nabi banned listening to music on radios and forbade Shiites from talking to Sunnis.
At prayer services, he said, the cleric urged detainees to join Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia, which has fought U.S. forces on several occasions. When the Americans transferred Nabi to Camp Bucca, a riot broke out and U.S. guards had to use rubber bullets and tear gas, he said.
Abu Mustafa said he and the other Shiites slept in shifts to guard each other after word spread that they had worked for a secular political party. They were forced to swear on a copy of the Koran that they had only been gardeners on the grounds of the party headquarters, he said.
“Prison is the best place to organize an army to destroy the country,” Abu Usama said. “Even someone who is innocent ... they will brainwash him to do whatever they want, including becoming a suicide bomber.”
Times staff writer Zeena Kareem contributed to this report.