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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)

Suddenly, everything the Americans had provided the inmates over the previous months was turned against them, according to guards and a videotape of the riot made available by the military. The cinderblock had been chiseled from the concrete base of a tent pole; hundreds of pieces had been stored inside a tent the inmates used as a mosque that the military designated off limits to the guards. The detainees used floorboards as shields. They hurled socks filled with a cocktail of feces, dirt and flammable, slow-burning hand sanitizer, the Americans said. One of the crude devices ignited a Polaris all-terrain vehicle.

'We Fought Bravely'

Before long, the ground was carpeted with pieces of cinderblock, much of it flung with slingshots fashioned from thin rubber gloves the Americans had given the inmates to distribute food. The detainees used what Brown called "standard David and Goliath" slings cut from the canvas tents. The most skillful, Brown said, could propel the cinderblock chunks through a bank teller's window. One chunk, he said, embedded in the wall behind a tower guard's head.

The Americans fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas but failed to slow the projectiles cascading from the courtyard. "With that deadly velocity, they were out-ranging our nonlethal weapons, which becomes very dangerous," Brown said.

"The violence, it was just absolutely incredible," said 1st Lt. Shawn Talmadge, a fire engine salesman from Richmond. "The sheer volume of rocks and the accuracy of them throwing the rocks -- it was just a full-out battle."

Talmadge said he had an epiphany. "I realized, these guys have been fighting riots and wars a lot longer than we have. These guys have been fighting this way for hundreds of years."

Challoub, who was wounded twice in the foot by nonlethal bullets, said that within hours hundreds of prisoners had joined the fight. Many shouted, "There is no god but God!" and "We are ready to die for you, Moqtada!"

Detainees in later interviews claimed to have held the compound for more than a week. Challoub and others said they were imbued with the spirit of Imam Mahdi, a messianic figure central to Shiite belief. They celebrated the courage of fighting a battle they knew they would lose.

"We wouldn't let them see us suffer," said Abu Abdullah Saadi, another Mahdi Army veteran released from the camp.

"We fought bravely, we fought like heroes," Challoub said. "Despite hunger, despite our injuries, we still fought."

On the fourth day of the riots, the Americans called in a Black Hawk helicopter, the video showed. The helicopter descended over the camp, the force of its rotor flattening the tents that hadn't already been burned down by the detainees. Bulldozers and 200 heavily armed soldiers encircled the compound. The Shiite prisoners finally gave up, complying with a list of demands that included handing over their weapons: the remaining floorboards and cinderblock rubble.

Little was left of the camp; it smoldered, smoke mixing with the stench of overturned portable toilets the detainees had used to barricade the entrance. Heaps of garbage, rocks and used tear gas canisters littered the yard.

It was the end to what had been a sobering period for the Americans, coming just days after the tunnel was discovered in Compound 5.

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