CAMP BUCCA, Iraq -- A bloody inmate riot three weeks ago at the biggest U.S.-run detention facility in Iraq has exposed an increasingly hard-core prison population that is confronting U.S. forces with a growing risk of prison violence, according to military officers.
U.S. troops who dealt with the clash tell of a chaotic and threatening situation. They say the extent of violence surprised them. They also say the nonlethal weapons available to them at the time for crowd control proved largely ineffectual.
A U.S. soldier guards Camp Bucca's Theater Internment Facility, which has been the site of several disturbances.
(Nabil Al Jurani -- AP)
"What happened here on January 31st has changed the dynamics" of managing such situations, said Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, who oversees U.S. military detention operations in Iraq and toured the facility last week. "It showed that the prisoners could hurl rocks farther than we could fire nonlethal weapons. It also showed that we have to do a better job of understanding who we have in detention."
Four inmates died and six were injured in the uprising the morning of Jan. 31, the most deaths in a prison disturbance since U.S. forces invaded Iraq two years ago. Frightened guards, some having arrived in Iraq only a month before, tried vainly to quell the rioting, spraying pepper gas and shooting rubberized pellets into throngs of prisoners, according to accounts by troops here.
The clashes spread through five of eight compounds at the sprawling detention facility in the southern Iraqi desert near the Kuwaiti border. Prisoners pelted guards with large stones and makeshift weapons, heaving debris over 15-foot-high metal fences and up at 30-foot-tall guard towers that ring the compounds.
Only after two Army guards in separate towers opened fire with M-16 rifles, killing the inmates, did the violence subside. U.S. officers say the guards acted on their own, with no order to fire. Rules here allow for use of deadly force if soldiers feel endangered.
For the first time since the incident, U.S. authorities allowed a reporter to visit the facility last week and talk with some of those who were involved. The episode remains under criminal investigation by the military, but the interviews yielded many previously unreported details and information about internal concerns.
Detention operations in Iraq have proved a persistent challenge for the U.S. military, which was caught unprepared to fight what has become a relentless insurgency and to deal with thousands of captured suspects. Photos documenting abuse and humiliation of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad in late 2003 surfaced last spring, igniting a public scandal and triggering a series of investigations.
Since then, commanders have tightened controls on U.S. military prison guards and improved conditions for detainees. Plans call for much of the effort involving detentions in Iraq to shift to Camp Bucca, a 100-acre facility developed from scratch to showcase the Army's revised detention methods. But a surge in military operations over the past few months -- and a decision to suspend the release of detainees until after the Iraqi elections on Jan. 30 -- have kept the number of detainees high.
About 3,180 prisoners are now at the Abu Ghraib facility, which has remained the U.S. military's primary interrogation center. Camp Bucca, which has a maximum capacity of 6,000 detainees, is up to about 5,150. Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad airport, houses about 100 "high-value" detainees. Another 1,300 or so suspected insurgents are being held for initial screenings at military brigade and division levels, according to military figures.
Camp Bucca's Theater Internment Facility is divided into eight compounds, each designed to hold up to about 800 inmates. Tents in which prisoners were housed have given way in many cases to climate-controlled huts built of wood with corrugated metal roofs. Small fields are available for soccer or volleyball games. Hot meals of rice, soup and stew are served.
There had been trouble at Camp Bucca before. In mid-October, fighting broke out between Sunni and Shiite prisoners in a dispute over observance of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. The Shiites were later placed in a separate compound.
In early December, a protest erupted after two prisoners were sentenced to isolation for an escape attempt. Shouting prisoners, armed with sticks from collapsed tents and shielded by mattresses, threatened to assault. Guards avoided firing and instead dispersed the inmates using extra troops, guard dogs and firetrucks in a show of force.
Trouble of a different sort also drew Camp Bucca into the news recently when the New York Daily News printed photos showing several female soldiers in their underwear wrestling in a mud-filled plastic pool as a small group of men cheered them on. The incident occurred at the camp Oct. 30, and most of the participants were from the 160th Military Police Battalion, an Army Reserve unit that was due to leave the next day. The Army is investigating the incident.