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Mon., Oct. 20, 2008

How to run a detainee camp

BAGHDAD – Protect the Iraqi people.

That was the new focus when Gen. David Petraeus was given command of coalition forces in 2007.

To protect often meant to separate, keeping innocents safe from al-Qaida, sectarian militias or sometimes even rogue police. One result of that process can be seen throughout Baghdad: seemingly endless stretches of concrete barriers – many the 17-foot-high “T” walls – along roads, in marketplaces, around residential communities.

All of which led to another, not unexpected, surge: an increase in the number of detainees held by coalition forces in places such as Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and Camp Cropper in Baghdad.

At a briefing last Monday at Cropper, officers said the detainee population peaked at 25,000 last October – news reports have said 30,000. Today, there are almost 18,000, including 3,500 al-Qaida members, 2,100 “high-value” detainees – think former regime leadership – and 163 foreign nationals. The majority, 83 percent, are Sunnis.

About 25 detainees are added daily, but twice that number are released each day. Last month, during Ramadan, it was 81. At Cropper, they report that of the 13,236 released since September 2007, only 97 have had to be recaptured, for a recidivism rate of 0.7 percent. Before September 2007, the rate was about 7 percent.

Part of the difference has been the counterinsurgency strategy implemented within the detainee camps. There, too, protection and separation would occur, under the direction of Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, who took command in spring 2007.

Changes had begun long before Stone arrived, prompted by the abuses at Abu Ghraib and by riots and other disturbances at Bucca and Cropper. But it was under Stone and Petraeus that those changes received a boost in funding and support.

In a recent interview, Stone said his job was about more than detention. He saw a “form of engagement with an Islamic population” that touched many of the issues being dealt with in the global war on terror: rule of law, basic services, family and tribal engagement, quality-of-life issues, and ideology.

Before the changes, Stone said, the system was “aiding in the creation of the extremist network. … We were focused on external care and not recognizing that these guys were continuing the fight.”

Detainees were mixed together, whether jihadis caught red-handed, someone who agreed to guard al-Qaida weapons for money, or innocents caught up in security sweeps. In the camps, the extremists took over. They would recruit, indoctrinate and train others for their cause, punishing those who didn’t cooperate.

Under Stone’s leadership, camps began separating al-Qaida from those deemed lesser risks. The evaluations are conducted by coalition staff, as well as local imams, teachers and counselors. Reading, vocational and religion programs were begun to help detainees safely reintegrate into society.

At Camp Cropper, the results of two of their programs are on display: the “Cropper Camel,” a homemade stuffed animal often presented by graduates of the sewing class to family members during camp visits, as well as paintings by detainees who have joined the art program.

All detainees are invited to join the classes, though al-Qaida members refuse, officers at Cropper say.

Stone said he found that once some detainees could read the Quran for themselves and discuss it with moderate imams, they learn how Islam is being distorted by the extremists.

“Then they start to say, ‘I’ve been lied to,’ ” Stone said, “and now they want to get out and get back to their family.”

Detainees go before a review committee when they arrive and at least every six months thereafter. The three-member panel makes decisions based on the person’s file, his behavior while detained, and any personal statements made during the review. Recommendations to retain or release are reviewed by several officers, all the way up to the commanding general.

It can be a tough call. Release the wrong person, and people could be killed. Retain an innocent, and you make an enemy for life. Based on the recidivism rate and the positive reactions Cropper officers report from detainee families, the process seems to be working.

The overall goal is much like the counterinsurgency outside the wire: protect the people, ally with moderates, empower them, and marginalize the radicals.

Stone says: “If you can develop extremists in prison, why not develop moderates?”

Kevin Ferris is commentary page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is

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