Time Zones

Time Zones: Visits to a U.S. Prison in Iraq Often Bring More Worries, Questions

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 12, 2009

BAGHDAD A dozen or so Iraqis sat quietly on wooden benches in a dimly lighted room, their eyes fixated on a television playing the American movie "Alvin and the Chipmunks" at a little past noon on a recent day. Despite Arabic subtitles, few seemed to follow the plot.

They were the relatives of 15 Iraqi prisoners and had made the journey to spend an hour or so with them at Camp Cropper, a prison on a U.S. base near Baghdad.

For the detainees and their families, the fleeting minutes that followed, punctuated by hope and frustration, anxiety and relief, were meant to answer fears. But often they inspired only more worries and raised more questions: How was a sick mother getting by in a distant village? How was a wife, left alone, supporting a detainee's family? More important, they dwelled on clues of an anticipated release, in a country in which hundreds, perhaps far more, have been jailed for years without charges in what many Iraqis deem an appalling miscarriage of justice.

At 12:40 p.m., an Iraqi woman in beige pants and a blue striped shirt announced that the visit had started. She recited the rules in a stern, authoritative voice as she stood in the middle of the waiting room, a long space divided in two. On one side, the families sat on the row of austere benches. On the other, children gathered in a play area next to U.S. soldiers' desks, where biometric data are gathered.

"You can kiss them, you can hug them, but you cannot give anything to them," the interpreter explained. "It is forbidden to exchange anything with them."

The prison, inside Camp Victory, one of the largest military facilities in Iraq, houses more than 10,000 detainees. Some are probably innocent, many officials have acknowledged. Others are considered dangerous, held on suspicion of murder, kidnapping, aiding foreign fighters and carrying out "terrorist operations," according to Brig. Gen. David Quantock, who is in charge of the detention center.

Most detainees will be transferred to Iraqi prisons or released by year's end under a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that took effect in January. The rest, considered the most dangerous, will be tried before Iraqi judges starting in December. About 2,200 will remain at the U.S.-run facility.

At 1 p.m., the visitors, assembled in one line, were led to a rectangular-shaped outdoor space bordered by black iron bars. A makeshift white nylon ceiling hung low over them. They were ordered to stand behind a blue line at one side of the hall. The inmates, in yellow suits or white traditional gowns, followed. Each was given a number that corresponded to the one the relatives gripped in their hand.

They stared at one another for a few interminable seconds. The interpreter then announced they could embrace. In a moment, children ran toward their fathers. Mothers hurried behind them. Fathers determined to maintain their demeanor smiled, cried, laughed and occasionally sobbed.

Sally Faysal, 4, jumped toward her father, Firas, as he extended his arms. Her mother, holding her 3-year-old son named Iraq, followed with her in-laws.

"How are you? How is everything? I missed you so much," Firas said.

"Thank God, we're all good. How are you?" asked his mother, Souad Dawaly.

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