CAMP CROPPER, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqis detained by U.S. forces for planting roadside bombs or smuggling weapons now make stuffed toys in sewing class, learn how to use a spreadsheet in computer class or chant verbs in English class.
The U.S. military hopes these sorts of rehabilitation programs at their detention camps in Iraq will reduce the likelihood of a spike in violence as thousands of inmates are released this year before a U.S. withdrawal by end-2011.
“We’ve got them in these programs, we’ve given them a skill, whether that’s a vocation or education,” said Brigadier General Robert Kenyon, head of Baghdad’s Camp Cropper detention center.
Violence has fallen dramatically in Iraq over the past year, fuelling hopes that the insurgency and sectarian bloodshed set off by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion are receding.
Yet some Iraqis fear the programed release of thousands accused by the Americans of being militants or terrorists could reignite the fighting.
U.S. officials and former detainees say those fears are unfair -- some 18,600 Iraqis were released from U.S. custody in 2008 and violence still fell sharply.
Most of the 12,300 still in custody carried out attacks for money, not out of ideology, Kenyon said.
“Their ability to work has increased, and there’s much less potential for these people to go back to easy money,” he said.
The U.S. military is due to end combat missions in Iraq by August 31 2010, and withdraw by the end of 2011.
Its confidence that released prisoners will not return to violence is a view backed by some former detainees.
“Their treatment was very good. I just want to live in peace,” said Abu Ahmed, who spent eight months in U.S. custody.
His account is a far cry from the sexual humiliation of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.
At Camp Cropper, Iraqis share a pristine hospital with U.S. soldiers, although they are kept to one side of the ward, tethered to the bed and are forbidden to speak to each other.
Detainees can fill in a patient satisfaction questionnaire.
SWEARING ON THE KORAN
In a camp tent, detainees in bright yellow prison uniforms due for release place their hand on the Koran, Islam’s holy book, and swear before a judge never to conduct terrorist acts. Reporters are forbidden from speaking to detainees.
The U.S. military says it has detained about 100,000 Iraqis since it invaded in 2003. Under a deal struck last year, the U.S. military must hand over all detainees to Iraq. Where there is evidence against them, they might end up being tried in Iraqi courts. Otherwise they must be set free.
The lack of evidence behind most arrests has left many former detainees bitter.
“The treatment was good inside the prison. But what was killing me was that my freedom was taken,” said Abu Shawkat al-Dulaimi, who spent two years in U.S. detention.
“I now only care about living in peace with my family.”
Kenyon said that while few were extremists, all of those set free were guilty of something. The presumption of innocence so sacrosanct in the United States is not part of the U.S. military’s detention doctrine in Iraq.
“No one here is innocent...If there was any indication he was innocent, we would have determined that long ago,” he said.
Ex-detainees say their reputations are invariably tainted by suspicions, and this made them vulnerable to being rearrested by Iraqi forces or to being accused of crimes by enemies.
“We’re stuck in limbo. We can’t go out. We can’t work,” said former detainee Abu Mustafa.
Not all former detainees interviewed said they had been treated well. One complained of having to strip naked, a procedure Kenyon said was standard for new detainees to check for wounds and illnesses and to get rid of old clothes.
“How can you make an old man strip naked? How can you allow this insult? How can you make a sheikh do this? ... We will never stop opposing the occupier until we die,” said Abu Fatima, follower of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, Editing by Michael Christie and Angus MacSwan
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