View Full Version : Iraqis jailing innocents, U.S. officials say

05-04-07, 07:44 PM
Iraqis jailing innocents, U.S. officials say
By Sean D. Naylor - Staff writer
Posted : Friday May 4, 2007 16:37:07 EDT

BAGHDAD — U.S. officers here 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 counter-insurgency 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.”

“You detain somebody that shouldn’t be detained … you’re just making them an enemy,” said a senior U.S. Army official in Baghdad.

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 the senior U.S. Army official in Baghdad.

U.S. officers said there are two main reasons why the Iraqi army is detaining 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. A month later, most remained in jail at the division holding area at Forward Operating Base Justice in Baghdad, said Duke’s intelligence officer, Capt. Johnson.

In the second example, Duke told the story of an Iraqi civilian who was kidnapped by insurgents while driving. He was released with his car, but quickly realized his vehicle had been wired to explode. He parked near an Iraqi army checkpoint and told the troops that his car had been turned into a bomb, or vehicle-borne IED (VBIED, pronounced V-bid), in U.S. military parlance.

The Iraqi soldiers promptly arrested him. “He was in our jail for more than two months, waiting to be seen, for basically giving us a tip about a VBIED,” Duke 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.

That perception is correct, said Maj. Michael Philipak, a U.S. Army intelligence officer who advises the Iraqi army 6th Division and the Khark Area Command, which commands all operations in Baghdad west of the Tigris River.

Authority to release any detainee rests with Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abud Ganbar Hashimi, who heads the Baghdad Operational Command, Philipak said. U.S. officers are trying to persuade Abud to delegate that authority down to his division commanders, the senior U.S. Army official said.

“It’s particularly frustrating when Iraqi commanders know that the people they’re holding or have entered into the system are innocent and should be released immediately, but they’re not empowered to do that,” Duke said.

Several U.S. officers said that the centralized bureaucratic culture of the Iraqi army discouraged initiative in the officer corps, and was a major factor preventing timely release of innocent detainees.

“Thirty years of Ba’ath Party rule have bred an entire generation of officers who are reluctant to make difficult decisions,” said Philipak. “Those decisions are bumped to the next higher echelon, and often they will bump it up one or two more. Any decision that could possibly land a commander in trouble, he will defer … higher.”

The second main reason why the Iraqi army is detaining so many people that both U.S. and Iraqi officers are convinced are innocent 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.

“Between 50 percent and 60 percent” of all detainees picked up by the 6th Iraqi Army Division’ 5th Brigade were detained only because their names were on lists sent down from above division level, Johnson said.

“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.

The battalions would then send that intelligence up their chain of command, he added. “The new thing we’re seeing now is they don’t let us create targets, they create the targets and send them down to us based on intelligence they have, but they don’t share.

“Back in the day the orders were to investigate the targets,” Amjad added. “Now it’s always ‘detain,’ never ‘investigate.’”

“I understand the concern,” said a senior U.S. Army official in Baghdad. “I share the same concern. ... Believe me, I fight this every week.”

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.

The senior U.S. Army official said he had boycotted a joint targeting meeting with Iraqi generals three months ago because for two weeks running the Iraqis had presented target lists made up entirely of Sunnis.The U.S. official said that when he had told the Iraqis, “You’ve got to have some balance,” they replied that “all the terrorists are Sunnis.”

Under the Baghdad Security Plan, all detainees must go the 6th Iraqi Army Division detention facility at FOB Justice.

“Right now there are 900 people in there, and the majority are Sunnis,” Johnson said April 24.

About 75 percent of the population in 5th Brigade’s area of operations in western Baghdad were Sunni, he said. However, he added, the brigade had one battalion working in a Shi’a neighborhood, but they never received long lists of Shi’a men to round up.

“Of the lists that come down from higher, maybe 5 percent are Shi’a,” and even those names may be there only because of the influence of the U.S. advisers at the division level or higher, Johnson added.

Shi’a detainees sometimes receive markedly different treatment than their Sunni counterparts. In early April, Johnson said 5th Brigade’s 1st Battalion detained 11 people from Jaysh al-Mahdi, the militia commanded by Shi’a firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Washasha, south of Baghdad’s Khadimiya neighborhood.

The battalion had received a lot of complaints from residents implicating the 11 individuals in death squad activities, attacks on U.S. forces and evictions of Sunni residents from their homes. But when the brigade sent the 11 up to FOB Justice, “they were quickly released,” he said.

Asked if he thought that the actions of the Iraqi government and its military were motivated by sectarianism, Johnson answered, “It can look like that.”

Duke estimated that at least 50 percent, 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.

Asked whether 50 percent of Iraqi army detainees were actually innocent, Philipak chose his words carefully. “I’m not disagreeing with that number,” he said. “Yes, there are a great deal of innocents.”

The same figure was 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 fifty percent 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.

“We believe right now it’s about 26,000 to 28,000 detainees in jails,” Falah said, adding that the process would also alienate the detainees’ families. Assuming an average of five members per Iraqi family, the detention policy is currently alienating more than 100,000 Iraqis, he said.

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.

“I spoke to the division commander and gave him a day to do something about it,” Duke said. But a day later, nothing had changed. “The division commander said ‘there’s nothing I can do; [the Ministry of Defense] says they’ll process them soon,’” Duke said.

“So it’s the morning of day four and they’re still there,” he continued. Ghasan again told him, “maybe tonight,” but that he couldn’t release them without permission from his higher headquarters.

“My thought was, I am witnessing what I consider to be a violation of human rights,” Duke said. “It’s a law-of-war violation in my judgment.”

He 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.

“I didn’t want to include Ghasan in knowing about it because I wanted him to have some deniability for his own protection,” Duke said.

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.

“Quite frankly, what they did to me was much lighter than I could have received,” Duke said. “Of the various administrative measures available to them to discipline me, they chose the least hard-hitting measure.”

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.”

To prevent a rift between the U.S. and Iraqi militaries, Duke said, “Someone on the American side had to show the Iraqis that there were some consequences for my actions ... that I got punished for doing this.”

Situations like the one in which Duke found himself have U.S. officers questioning their role in Iraq. “It makes you ask yourself, what am I here for?” Johnson said. “Why am I putting myself at risk if I’m going to stand beside something that’s not right?”

When Duke freed the men, “it definitely was not meant to undermine the Iraqi system,” Johnson said, adding that it was a case of choosing “the hard right” over the easy wrong.

“I was kind of proud to see those guys going away knowing we didn’t support them being detained unfairly,” Johnson said.

As an example of the benefits to be gained from such actions, Johnson noted that he gave some of the freed men his cell phone number, and they later called in some tips about insurgent activity.

But the senior U.S. Army official in Baghdad, who was closely involved with the episode, said Duke’s chain of command was already on the verge of persuading the Iraqis to release the prisoners, and that he should have allowed those negotiations to run their course.

“What we have to do on the coalition side is understand their process,” the senior Army official said. “It ain’t our process. We never want to put our guys into an integrity trap. We never want to put a soldier — it doesn’t matter if he’s a field grade officer — into a position that he feels like he’s in an integrity trap. And what he is obliged to do is to raise that up, bring it up through his chain of command.”

There have been “very few cases” in which the Iraqis have not complied when U.S. generals have told them a detainee was innocent and needed to be released, the senior official said.

But 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.”