In Iraq, Chaos Feared as U.S. Closes Prison

The release of hundreds of prisoners from Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run prison in southern Iraq, has facilitated the revival of Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents in Basra, Baghdad.
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 22, 2009

GARMA, Iraq -- The release of hundreds of prisoners from Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run prison in southern Iraq, has facilitated the revival of Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents in Basra, Baghdad and the borderless expanse here along the Euphrates, according to police chiefs, intelligence officials in the Interior Ministry and residents.

Although none of them predicted a return to the anarchy and sectarian carnage of 2006-2007, when scores of bodies might show up in the street on any day, officials suggested that the groups were preparing for the onset of a U.S. military withdrawal.

Their warnings make for an irony at the beginning of the end of the American presence here. As the United States dismantles Bucca, viewed by many as an appalling miscarriage of justice where prisoners were not charged or permitted to see evidence against them, freed detainees may end up swelling the ranks of a subdued insurgency.

In hardscrabble Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, some former inmates of Bucca speak of revenge. Others talk of their own conversion there: as prisoners, giving their support to militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, an anti-American cleric whose forces were routed in Baghdad and Basra last year. A sense of uncertainty reigns in the forlorn stretches around Garma, a wind-swept town as parched as it is lawless, as Sunni residents brace for the return of dozens of fighters and such men as Col. Saad Abbas Mahmoud, the police chief here, openly admit to being overwhelmed by their influx.

"These men weren't planting flowers in a garden. They weren't strolling down the street," said Mahmoud, known as Abu Quteiba to his lieutenants, who snap their heels as they enter. "This problem is both big and dangerous. And regrettably, the Iraqi government and the authorities don't know how big the problem has become."

Since leading the invasion of Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the United States has detained about 100,000 people in the country. At the height of the U.S. troop buildup, or "surge," 26,000 of those prisoners were incarcerated in Bucca, a sprawling camp near the Kuwaiti border in southern Iraq. That number has fallen to 9,600. In all, since Jan. 1, the military has released nearly 2,000 prisoners, and it plans to close the facility by summer.

In a joyous ceremony Thursday in Baghdad, 106 more prisoners were set free, escorted to the Umm al-Qura mosque, once a hotbed of opposition to the U.S. occupation. Families sobbed, shouted and ululated, as detainees grasped identity papers.

"Most of the prisoners are innocent, just like my son," said Saad Nema, gripping the hand of his 26-year-old son, Raed, who was held for 18 months. "I cried today in happiness."

Not as innocent was Mohammed Ali Mourad, whom Col. Daoud Hammoud, the deputy police chief in Fallujah, described as the driver of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in June 2006.

Mourad was detained after leaving Bucca, but a judge freed him, and he is believed to be running a cell in Baghdad with former prisoners. Hammoud blamed him for an attack Dec. 4 that sent two bomb-laden trucks against a police station, killing 15.

"We have information that he and his cell are behind it," said Hammoud, a former police officer under Hussein who works in a compound littered with the carcasses of BMWs, Toyotas, Opals and a Chevrolet that were deployed as car bombs.

Hammoud put the number at hundreds returning to the region around Fallujah, once the cradle of the insurgency. He estimated that they tried to arrest 10 percent of those freed and acknowledged that it takes no more than a handful of fighters to sow strife.

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