ABU GHRAIB, Iraq, Jan. 20 -- Major U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq are nearing capacity, with the number of suspected insurgents in custody on Thursday at the highest level since March, according to detention officials.
The U.S. military has about 7,900 so-called security detainees -- people suspected of participating in the insurgency or otherwise threatening Iraq's security -- at its three primary holding facilities in Iraq, officials said. In addition, releases have been suspended until after Jan. 30, when Iraqis are to elect a National Assembly.
A freed detainee brought from Abu Ghraib is shown leaving Iraqi National Guard barracks in Ramadi last month, before the temporary ban on releases.
(Omar Aboud -- AP)
Military officials said the surge in detainees reflected the expansion of the insurgency campaign aimed at disrupting Iraq's first democratic elections in nearly half a century.
"It's been steadily growing since September," said Maj. Gen. William H. Brandenburg, commander of U.S. detention operations in Iraq. He said that an average of 50 people were being arrested every day and that U.S. and Iraqi security forces had recently been capturing as many as 70 in a day.
The number of detainees includes about 650 arrested during fighting in Fallujah, which U.S. and Iraqi security forces recaptured from insurgents in November. Though U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly said that foreign fighters are heavily involved in the insurgency, the detainee population includes just 334 foreigners.
The total does not, however, include 1,200 suspected insurgents being held at smaller facilities run at the military brigade and division levels; about 75 percent of those individuals typically are freed after a few days.
After being processed by the units that capture them, detainees are brought to Abu Ghraib, a prison 20 miles west of Baghdad where reports of abuse sparked a global scandal eight months ago. At that time, Abu Ghraib held more than 7,000 detainees in overcrowded, dirty compounds.
The Army, which operates the detention facilities, now houses most long-term detainees at Camp Bucca, near the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq. As of Thursday, Abu Ghraib held 2,708 detainees, Camp Bucca had 5,044 and Camp Cropper -- a facility near Baghdad that holds what are known as high-value detainees, had 103.
Brandenburg said releases had been put on hold so soldiers in the field could focus on providing security before the elections. When detainees are released, the units that captured them must come to Abu Ghraib to pick them up and return them to their communities, often a two-day mission.
The general said a board that determines which detainees should be freed was still meeting, but had recommended that releases not be carried out until early February. "As long as we don't get past our capability to sufficiently care for detainees, we'll be okay," Brandenburg said.
The mistreatment by soldiers at Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003 was documented in photographs and videos showing naked detainees being frightened, beaten and forced into humiliating sexual positions. President Bush ultimately apologized for the abuses, which military leaders acknowledge helped fuel the insurgency in Iraq.
Eight soldiers were charged with abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib -- all but one of them from the Army's 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cresaptown, Md. Two soldiers accused of being the ringleaders, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick and Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., have been sentenced to eight years and 10 years in prison, respectively.
Soldiers who guard detainees now work under strict guidelines. Soldiers from the 391st Military Police Battalion, which took over from the 372nd last February, have expressed little sympathy for the accused soldiers. Although they were not involved in the abuse, soldiers from the 391st and the 152nd Field Artillery National Guard unit -- brought in to help guard the prison -- found themselves in the spotlight when the scandal broke.
The military has also overhauled all of its detention facilities since the scandal, which highlighted the poor living conditions of both the detainees and the soldiers. Prisoners at Abu Ghraib now live in heated tents with electricity and have access to showers and to cold water in the summer. They also have extensive medical and dental care.
One night this week, detainees in yellow jumpsuits and winter coats and hats lined up at a fence for plates of hot food. Inside a wooden guard hut, U.S. soldiers crowded around a table and their own dinner: pizza and cheeseburgers.
"It's changed 100 percent for the detainees," said Staff Sgt. Mathew Quint, 40, of Houlton, Maine.
Quint, a member of the Maine National Guard's 1st Battalion, 152nd Field Artillery Regiment, said he was pleased that a military court last week gave Graner a 10-year prison sentence and dishonorable discharge. "He's trying to pass the buck," Quint said. "A soldier knows better."
During his year at the prison, Pfc. Christian King, 22, also of Houlton, said he had learned a lot about Iraq by talking to detainees. "The detainees from Baghdad don't really have that bad an opinion of us," he said. "The detainees from Fallujah tend to use it as their Alamo. They haven't been exposed to the good we've done. They've only talked to the insurgents."
King said the hardest thing he has had to do was forget that the detainees are accused of being insurgents who tried to kill American soldiers. "You have to put it out of your mind," he said. "Our job here is not to punish them, to take revenge. Our job is to protect them."
He and his fellow soldiers have been in the spotlight because other people "screwed up here," said King, who said he would resume his studies at the University of Maine when he got home. "The guys in my unit have done everything in their power to make this a better place."
Sgt. Michael Tantillo, 25, of New York City, one of the new replacement guards from the 18th Military Police Brigade, 306th Battalion, said he expected his job to be easier now that changes had been made and new rules were in place.
"These guys had it a lot harder," he said, gesturing toward King and Quint. Tantillo said that when he looks into the detainees' tents, he sees "a lot of innocent faces of war and a lot of killers."
"But it's not our job to judge them," he said. "It's our job to keep them there."