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.
"Of course they represent a threat," he said.
A senior intelligence official at the Interior Ministry said the number was far higher and the problem more expansive. He said the "special groups" organized within Sadr's militia but believed to wield autonomy were reorganizing in Basra and, to a lesser extent, Baghdad. Perhaps more dramatic, he said, were the efforts of Sunni insurgents under the umbrella of al-Qaeda to reconstitute themselves in southern and western neighborhoods of the capital and then farther west toward Garma.
"These regions are becoming a danger to the government," he said. "Al-Qaeda is preparing itself for the departure of the Americans. And they want to stage a revolution."
He suggested that 60 percent of detainees freed in those areas were returning to the fight. Mahmoud, the colonel in Garma, put the number in his region at 90 percent.
Holding forth behind barricades of sand-filled receptacles, Mahmoud, the Garma police chief, is a marked man. Twenty-five, he said, nodding his head, as he finished counting. That was the number of attempts on his life. The most recent were perhaps the most creative: He was delivered a Koran rigged with explosives buried in the pages between its green covers, then, less than two weeks later, his dish of dulaymiya, a mix of chicken, lamb, a slab of fat and rice, was poisoned, sending him to the hospital for 10 days. When he got out, two bombs detonated near his house in Fallujah.
"Thank God, no one was hurt," he said.
One of his brothers was kidnapped. The other was killed by a bomb last year.
"We couldn't gather together even a kilogram of his flesh," Mahmoud said.
He opened his briefcase to pull out pictures of the severed head of one suicide bomber, his eyes still open, and the disemboweled body of another.
Mahmoud oversees 3,000 men in the Sahwa, Arabic for Awakening, a U.S.-backed tribal gathering sometimes called the Sons of Iraq that helped defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq in Sunni regions. But, he said, the salary of each is only $130 a month, "not enough for cigarettes," and even then, they haven't been paid in three months. Other security forces in the region number just 500, and he said 50 percent of them had deserted.
At the same time, detainees are coming back from Bucca, Mahmoud said. His men have arrested 70 former prisoners since provincial elections Jan. 31, some of whom had turned their attention to trying to bring disgruntled Sahwa fighters back to their side.
"Please return to your faith, and we will receive you in our hearts, with open hands," read one leaflet signed by the Awakening of Muslim Youth and found in Garma. "If you don't, we will bring to you men who love death in the same way you love life."
One of those Mahmoud's men arrested was Salah Khdeir.
He spent seven months in Bucca after soldiers discovered four mines tucked in his truck. He returned to the prison in 2008 after he was caught burying bombs destined for a U.S. patrol. He was released this month. Five days later, he was arrested again, after a roadside bomb that police say resembled his handiwork detonated near Garma.
Innocent, Khdeir declared at the police station, shaking his head.
"I'm a peaceful man," the gaunt 22-year-old added.
"He's an expert at planting bombs," Mahmoud answered.
After Khdeir left, Mahmoud handed out a letter he said Khdeir had sent his brother.
"If you think I abandoned the jihad, I say that I have paid homage to God and with his will, I will do everything," he wrote in childish Arabic, the script barely legible.
He had signed the letter, "Salah, the roadside bomb."
There remains a clarity in Garma and parts of Baghdad among former prisoners, many of them detained at a time when the U.S. presence was undeniably an occupation and the insurgency against the Americans enjoyed popular support. For some of them, the question is not whether they want revenge but rather how cold it will be served.
In the Shiite neighborhood of al-Ameen, where Sadr's Mahdi Army still holds sway, Anwar Abbas has an unsettled score with the policeman who captured him.
"I want to kill him," he declared. "No compensation from him would be enough otherwise. He's not an Iraqi. What do I mean? He's a spy, and no one accepts a spy."
Abbas was released last week, after nearly two years in Bucca. His older son, 3-year-old Moqtada, didn't recognize him. "He keeps asking his mother who I am." His younger son, Muntadar, was born while he was in prison.
At first, he denied being a fighter. Kadhim Saadi, a visiting Sadr leader, winked as he did. Confidence renewed, Abbas then spoke with the force of a convert.
"If I had to choose between sacrificing my father and the Sadr trend, I'd sacrifice my father," he said. "I told my wife that I would sacrifice her and my children."
"The fight hasn't ended," Abbas said. "This is a temporary truce."
U.S. officials were long worried about Bucca effectively becoming a school for insurgents and tried to take steps to combat it. But in Abbas's section, he said, Sadr supporters were in charge. Saadi, the cleric, taught classes in jurisprudence, Arabic, Koranic recitation and even literacy.
Saadi believes he recruited 80 men during his year in Bucca.
"By God's grace, we opened our institute in an American prison," he said.
One of the students was Saif Tuama, who had a brush with fame in July 2004 when his photo appeared in Time magazine. "Taking Back the Streets," the article read. Tuama was pictured at the forefront of a group of policemen on patrol.
Two years later, he was arrested when a friend of a friend visiting him was picked up in a raid on his house by U.S. and Iraqi forces. He ended up in Bucca for 19 months.
Pudgy, with a goatee, hints of gray over his ears, he recalled the good will of Sadr supporters in prison. When he was sick, they washed his clothes and brought him food. He studied two hours a day in the classes with Saadi.
"I wasn't devout before. I didn't pray or fast. I liked girls. I liked to drink. I'm speaking with you honestly," he said. "They taught me to pray and worship God. If they hadn't taught me, I would still be living a wrong life. They're good people, fine men."
Twenty of his friends in Bucca, he said, felt the same way.
"They keep telling you, 'You're with Sadr, you're with Sadr.' Fine, when I get out, I'm going to go ahead and join Sadr," Tuama said.
Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.