In Iraq Jail, Resistance Goes Underground

Nearly a third of Camp Bucca's 600 detainees participated in digging this tunnel, in which about 100 tons of dirt was excavated in eight weeks.
Nearly a third of Camp Bucca's 600 detainees participated in digging this tunnel, in which about 100 tons of dirt was excavated in eight weeks. (Courtesy 105th Military Police Battalion)
By Steve Fainaru and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

CAMP BUCCA, Iraq -- In the darkest hours before dawn, groups of 10 detainees toiled 15 feet beneath Compound 5 of America's largest prison in Iraq. The men worked in five-minute shifts, digging with shovels fashioned from tent poles and hauling the dirt to the surface with five-gallon water jugs tethered to 200 feet of rope. They bagged it in sacks that had been used to deliver their bread rations and spread it surreptitiously across a soccer field where fellow inmates churned it during daily matches, guards and detainees recalled.

The 105th Military Police Battalion, charged with running Camp Bucca in the scorching desert of southernmost Iraq, knew something was amiss: Undetectable to the naked eye, the field's changing color was picked up by satellite imagery. The excavated dirt was also clogging the showers and two dozen portable toilets. The dirt was showing up under the floorboards of tents; some guards sensed that the floor itself seemed to be rising. Mysteriously, water use in the compound had spiked.

Hours before the planned prison break on March 24, an informant tipped off the Americans, who then drove a bulldozer across Compound 5. What they discovered was breathtaking: a fully completed tunnel that stretched 357 feet, longer than a football field. Inside were flashlights built from radio diodes and five larger spaces to provide ventilation. The tunnel's walls were as smooth and strong as concrete, sculpted with water and, the Americans believe, milk. The exit, beyond the compound's fence, was camouflaged with sand-colored cardboard. It opened into a partially concealed trench that would lead the detainees to freedom.

The discovery of what came to be known as "The Great Escape" tunnel was a seminal moment for the Americans charged with guarding Iraq's exploding prison population. It underscored the fact that the guards were not simply policing more than 6,000 detainees but, in their own way, fighting an enemy that exhibited the same complexity and resilience inside the prison's chain-linked fences and miles of coiled razor wire as it did in the most embattled streets of Iraq. For the inmates, the fight had never stopped.

"It was a military operation. It was very organized, and it was very disciplined," said Mohammed Touman, 27, an inmate released May 27 from Compound 5. "If only 200 people would have escaped, it would have been a blow to the Americans."

Col. James B. Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade, which oversees the U.S. military's three detention facilities in Iraq, said the escape would have been one of the largest from any U.S.-run facility in history.

"In a prison, there's the feeling that the war is over for you and it's over for me. We'll chit-chat at the fence and get through this together," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Inside Camp Bucca, Brown said, "the war is not at all over."

'We Learned Quickly'

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the military said it has arrested more than 40,000 people. The population today at the three U.S.-run prisons -- Bucca, Abu Ghraib and Camp Cropper near the Baghdad airport, where former President Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants are being held -- is 10,600, double the number of a year ago. The average incarceration at Bucca is a year. The military attributes the surge in detentions to an increase in combat operations and the inability of the nascent Iraqi justice system to handle the crushing caseload.

Many of the freed detainees express bewilderment at why they were held; even the U.S. commander who oversees Bucca, Col. Austin Schmidt, 55, of Fairfax, estimated that one in four prisoners "perhaps were just snagged in a dragnet-type operation" or were victims of personal vendettas.

"This is like Chicago in the '30s: You don't like somebody, you drop a dime on them," Schmidt said. "And by the time the Iraqi court system figures it out, they go home. But it takes a while."

Camp Bucca sits on one of the most unforgiving plots of Iraq, a desert moonscape of 130-degree temperatures and howling winds, a few minutes drive from the Kuwaiti border. The prison's two-mile perimeter contains 12 compounds, six on each side of a dirt and gravel road the Americans call the Green Mile. The detainees, usually clad in bright yellow jumpsuits or prison-issued traditional gowns, called dishdashas , are housed in tan-colored canvas tents or air-conditioned plywood buildings with corrugated tin roofs; each holds about 20 detainees. During the day, the intense heat keeps all but a few of the inmates from venturing into the sandy courtyards. At the corner of each compound, guards with automatic rifles stand watch from three-story wooden towers.

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