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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)

Three meals a day are served -- bread, cheese, jam and tea for breakfast and dinner, rice and stew for lunch, former detainees recalled in recent interviews. Although the Americans offer classes and even movies as incentives for good behavior, most downtime is devoted to lessons organized by the inmates. Some English is offered -- both elementary and advanced -- but the curriculum is heavy on religion: Islamic jurisprudence and doctrine, Muslim history, Arabic grammar and Koranic recitation, the former detainees said.

Most Sunni and Shiite prisoners are kept in separate compounds. In the Shiite area, about 20 clerics are in charge. They hand down stern justice. For breaking rules, inmates are denied food or beaten on the soles of their feet with poles, leaving no visible marks. In the more numerous Sunni compounds, inmates elect a leader from their ranks. Once in power, detainees said, his decisions are unquestioned.

"We organized ourselves by ourselves," said Hassan Challoub, a Shiite inmate from Baghdad who was freed last month. Guards have discovered a large and elaborate array of artwork throughout the camp, but mainly in living quarters: portraits of Moqtada Sadr, a popular Shiite cleric who commands an armed militia, intricately etched on fabric culled from tents; Koranic verses rendered in sloping Arabic calligraphy; even handbags fashioned from juice boxes left over from meals.

Breaking the monotony is the arrival of what the detainees call the "Happy Bus," which picks up prisoners who are to be released.

When the 105th Military Police Battalion, a North Carolina Army National Guard unit from Asheville, arrived last fall, the detainee population was 3,900, according to Brown. Before long, the military stepped up counterinsurgency operations across Iraq and hundreds of inmates arrived each week. Among them were veterans of Sadr's Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, which had organized two armed uprisings against U.S. troops; Sunni followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born insurgent leader blamed for some of Iraq's worst carnage; other Sunni insurgents loyal to tribes or the former ruling Baath Party; and a handful of religious fighters from other Arab countries.

"I guess we were kind of naive when we first got here," said Sgt. 1st Class John Freeman, of Marion, N.C., who was put in charge of detainee operations at Bucca. "It was like, 'Hey, they're inside a fence. They don't have anything they can hurt us with.' We learned quickly."

Inmate Uprising

On April 1, a four-day riot began in Compound 3, where the Shiites were held.

A former detainee, Challoub, known as Abu Hala, was a burly, bearded 45-year-old Mahdi Army commander detained in August during pitched fighting with U.S. forces in Sadr City, a Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad. In Bucca, he was second in command at Compound 3. On that April morning, he said he watched as American guards tried to remove 10 prisoners from the courtyard, among them four clerics who made up the Shiite compound's leadership. The guards put the men on the ground, cuffed their hands behind them and, he said, put their boots on the clerics' backs.

"As a Muslim, when you see your teacher treated like that, of course, you will get angry. As a Shiite, you should respect the cleric," said Challoub, who was released last month and returned to Baghdad. "That's when the chaos started."

U.S. commanders said the prisoners were being transferred to a maximum-security compound but denied that the detainees were forced to the ground or that soldiers held them down with their boots. Some of the detainees sat down in the dirt in protest, guards recalled. Others crowded around the detainees and screamed, "Don't go!"

Around 8:30 a.m., the company commander and prison commandant, Lt. Col. T. Paul Houser, a social worker from Catawba County, N.C., emerged from a meeting with the International Committee of the Red Cross and heard the commotion. Houser jumped in the back of a covered cargo truck and headed for Compound 3. As he approached, a chunk of cinderblock struck him in the left eye, fracturing his cheek in three places and breaking three teeth.

"I turned and just caught it in the face," said Houser, who was flown by helicopter to a military hospital, where a doctor told him his protective glasses had saved his eyesight. "I guess it must have come through the back of the vehicle. It was a lucky shot."

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