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In Iraq Jail, Resistance Goes Underground

'Engineering Miracle'

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)

According to former Sunni prisoners, work on the tunnel had begun in January, beneath the wooden floorboards of a tent. The detainees dug down three feet, installed a false bottom with planks, then tunneled 12 more feet to a point where the sand gave way to packed dirt. To prevent the entrance from collapsing, the inmates reinforced it with plywood scraps and sandbags.

At its peak, nearly a third of the more than 600 inmates were engaged in the dig, detainees said. The work was tedious: The teams worked only at night, usually between 1 a.m. and the dawn prayer before the morning head count. Usually no more than three feet of dirt per day was excavated; each worker spent just five minutes in the tunnel, digging with flattened tent poles wrapped with canvas grips.

Inside the tunnel, the detainees carved spaces for others to push air with a makeshift bellow system, the former detainees said. Once each five-gallon water jug was filled with dirt, men at the tunnel's entrance pulled it to the surface. Others carted it off and spread it across the compound.

"There was no work during the day," said Ali Atlawi Mughir, 31, who was detained in Baghdad in August 2004 and held in Compound 5. "The group never mentioned their secret."

By the end of March, the tunnel, just wide enough for one person to crawl through, was complete.

"It was an engineering miracle," said Muthanna Mahmoud, a 30-year-old inmate.

Inmates said they planned the prison break for after midnight on March 24. They would leave in groups of 25; during roll call, others would answer, covering their tracks, detainees said. All that was left was for the leadership to determine the order of the prisoners' escape. "They didn't want pandemonium," said Touman, another inmate.

For the Americans, it was a race against time. For days, they had detected something was wrong. In addition to the clogged showers and portable toilets, an informant had hinted that a tunnel was under construction, the fourth in as many months at the prison. But he never pinpointed its location or how far the detainees had dug.

That afternoon, an intelligence officer met again with the informant. This time he disclosed that the tunnel was in Compound 5 and had been completed. The detainees planned to escape within 48 hours, the informant said. He told the officer he feared a bloodbath if they were caught escaping. "That's the story he gave us; it's as credible as anything else we've heard," said Houser, the prison commandant. "I don't know why he'd risk getting his throat cut for giving up such a huge, huge find."

The Americans immediately moved the detainees into a holding area and bulldozed a straight line through the compound. Within minutes it collapsed part of the tunnel. Trying to find the tunnel's exit, the Americans dug parallel to the compound fence. Before long it was night and they still hadn't found the end. Three guards walked outside, across a dirt road, beyond yet another fence, to a sandy berm bordering a trench. The cardboard that concealed it was propped up from inside by a 2-by-4.

"Through a fluke we walked right past the exit; we almost fell in," said Talmadge.

Talmadge, the battalion's assistant operations officer, had studied engineering at Virginia Tech. "I was just fascinated by the complexity and simplicity of the whole thing," he said. "The tunnel, it's like perfectly made. It's nice and smooth, the edges of the wall. So we started doing some math calculations. They moved 100 tons of soil in about eight weeks."

"Extremely intelligent, these guys are," said Talmadge.

Since the riot and the discovery of the tunnel, the U.S. military has overhauled Camp Bucca. The tents are nearly gone, replaced by buildings with concrete foundations almost impossible to dig through or fashion into a weapon. The dwellings are built at an angle, putting nearly all the detainees in the guards' line of sight. The compounds have been partitioned into quadrants, limiting the inmates movements and communication. The 105th no longer distributes hand sanitizer or rubber gloves.

Brown said the changes came with the realization that Camp Bucca is not a prison "but actually a battle space."

Eventually, as with counterinsurgency operations throughout the country, the military plans to turn Bucca over to Iraqi security forces. But when that will happen is unclear. "The target keeps moving," said Schmidt, the base commander. "So I'm building," he said. "I'm putting in things that look an awful lot like permanent structures."

Shadid reported from Baghdad.

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