In the darkest hours before dawn, groups of 10 detainees toiled 15 feet beneath Compound 5 of America's largest prison in Iraq. The men worked in five-minute shifts, digging with shovels fashioned from tent poles and hauling the dirt to the surface with five-gallon water jugs tethered to 200 feet of rope. They bagged it in sacks that had been used to deliver their bread rations and spread it surreptitiously across a soccer field where fellow inmates churned it during daily matches, guards and detainees recalled.
The 105th Military Police Battalion, charged with running Camp Bucca in the scorching desert of southernmost Iraq, knew something was amiss: Undetectable to the naked eye, the field's changing color was picked up by satellite imagery. The excavated dirt was also clogging the showers and two dozen portable toilets. The dirt was showing up under the floorboards of tents; some guards sensed that the floor itself seemed to be rising. Mysteriously, water use in the compound had spiked.
Hours before the planned prison break on March 24, an informant tipped off the Americans, who then drove a bulldozer across Compound 5. What they discovered was breathtaking: a fully completed tunnel that stretched 357 feet, longer than a football field. Inside were flashlights built from radio diodes and five larger spaces to provide ventilation. The tunnel's walls were as smooth and strong as concrete, sculpted with water and, the Americans believe, milk. The exit, beyond the compound's fence, was camouflaged with sand-colored cardboard. It opened into a partially concealed trench that would lead the detainees to freedom.
The discovery of what came to be known as "The Great Escape" tunnel was a seminal moment for the Americans charged with guarding Iraq's exploding prison population. It underscored the fact that the guards were not simply policing more than 6,000 detainees but, in their own way, fighting an enemy that exhibited the same complexity and resilience inside the prison's chain-linked fences and miles of coiled razor wire as it did in the most embattled streets of Iraq. For the inmates, the fight had never stopped.
"It was a military operation. It was very organized, and it was very disciplined," said Mohammed Touman, 27, an inmate released May 27 from Compound 5. "If only 200 people would have escaped, it would have been a blow to the Americans."
Col. James B. Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade, which oversees the U.S. military's three detention facilities in Iraq, said the escape would have been one of the largest from any U.S.-run facility in history.
"In a prison, there's the feeling that the war is over for you and it's over for me. We'll chit-chat at the fence and get through this together," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Inside Camp Bucca, Brown said, "the war is not at all over."
'We Learned Quickly'
Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the military said it has arrested more than 40,000 people. The population today at the three U.S.-run prisons -- Bucca, Abu Ghraib and Camp Cropper near the Baghdad airport, where former President Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants are being held -- is 10,600, double the number of a year ago. The average incarceration at Bucca is a year. The military attributes the surge in detentions to an increase in combat operations and the inability of the nascent Iraqi justice system to handle the crushing caseload.
Many of the freed detainees express bewilderment at why they were held; even the U.S. commander who oversees Bucca, Col. Austin Schmidt, 55, of Fairfax, estimated that one in four prisoners "perhaps were just snagged in a dragnet-type operation" or were victims of personal vendettas.
"This is like Chicago in the '30s: You don't like somebody, you drop a dime on them," Schmidt said. "And by the time the Iraqi court system figures it out, they go home. But it takes a while."
Camp Bucca sits on one of the most unforgiving plots of Iraq, a desert moonscape of 130-degree temperatures and howling winds, a few minutes drive from the Kuwaiti border. The prison's two-mile perimeter contains 12 compounds, six on each side of a dirt and gravel road the Americans call the Green Mile. The detainees, usually clad in bright yellow jumpsuits or prison-issued traditional gowns, called dishdashas, are housed in tan-colored canvas tents or air-conditioned plywood buildings with corrugated tin roofs; each holds about 20 detainees. During the day, the intense heat keeps all but a few of the inmates from venturing into the sandy courtyards. At the corner of each compound, guards with automatic rifles stand watch from three-story wooden towers.
Three meals a day are served -- bread, cheese, jam and tea for breakfast and dinner, rice and stew for lunch, former detainees recalled in recent interviews. Although the Americans offer classes and even movies as incentives for good behavior, most downtime is devoted to lessons organized by the inmates. Some English is offered -- both elementary and advanced -- but the curriculum is heavy on religion: Islamic jurisprudence and doctrine, Muslim history, Arabic grammar and Koranic recitation, the former detainees said.
Most Sunni and Shiite prisoners are kept in separate compounds. In the Shiite area, about 20 clerics are in charge. They hand down stern justice. For breaking rules, inmates are denied food or beaten on the soles of their feet with poles, leaving no visible marks. In the more numerous Sunni compounds, inmates elect a leader from their ranks. Once in power, detainees said, his decisions are unquestioned.
"We organized ourselves by ourselves," said Hassan Challoub, a Shiite inmate from Baghdad who was freed last month. Guards have discovered a large and elaborate array of artwork throughout the camp, but mainly in living quarters: portraits of Moqtada Sadr, a popular Shiite cleric who commands an armed militia, intricately etched on fabric culled from tents; Koranic verses rendered in sloping Arabic calligraphy; even handbags fashioned from juice boxes left over from meals.
Breaking the monotony is the arrival of what the detainees call the "Happy Bus," which picks up prisoners who are to be released.
When the 105th Military Police Battalion, a North Carolina Army National Guard unit from Asheville, arrived last fall, the detainee population was 3,900, according to Brown. Before long, the military stepped up counterinsurgency operations across Iraq and hundreds of inmates arrived each week. Among them were veterans of Sadr's Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, which had organized two armed uprisings against U.S. troops; Sunni followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born insurgent leader blamed for some of Iraq's worst carnage; other Sunni insurgents loyal to tribes or the former ruling Baath Party; and a handful of religious fighters from other Arab countries.
"I guess we were kind of naive when we first got here," said Sgt. 1st Class John Freeman, of Marion, N.C., who was put in charge of detainee operations at Bucca. "It was like, 'Hey, they're inside a fence. They don't have anything they can hurt us with.' We learned quickly."
On April 1, a four-day riot began in Compound 3, where the Shiites were held.
A former detainee, Challoub, known as Abu Hala, was a burly, bearded 45-year-old Mahdi Army commander detained in August during pitched fighting with U.S. forces in Sadr City, a Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad. In Bucca, he was second in command at Compound 3. On that April morning, he said he watched as American guards tried to remove 10 prisoners from the courtyard, among them four clerics who made up the Shiite compound's leadership. The guards put the men on the ground, cuffed their hands behind them and, he said, put their boots on the clerics' backs.
"As a Muslim, when you see your teacher treated like that, of course, you will get angry. As a Shiite, you should respect the cleric," said Challoub, who was released last month and returned to Baghdad. "That's when the chaos started."
U.S. commanders said the prisoners were being transferred to a maximum-security compound but denied that the detainees were forced to the ground or that soldiers held them down with their boots. Some of the detainees sat down in the dirt in protest, guards recalled. Others crowded around the detainees and screamed, "Don't go!"
Around 8:30 a.m., the company commander and prison commandant, Lt. Col. T. Paul Houser, a social worker from Catawba County, N.C., emerged from a meeting with the International Committee of the Red Cross and heard the commotion. Houser jumped in the back of a covered cargo truck and headed for Compound 3. As he approached, a chunk of cinderblock struck him in the left eye, fracturing his cheek in three places and breaking three teeth.
"I turned and just caught it in the face," said Houser, who was flown by helicopter to a military hospital, where a doctor told him his protective glasses had saved his eyesight. "I guess it must have come through the back of the vehicle. It was a lucky shot."
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.
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.