Baghdad Under Siege
It is raining, and many of the yellow-jumpsuited prisoners in Camp Redemption are looking for a dry place to stand. There are few prisoners outside their leaky tents, save those receiving family visitors or those who have decided to take shelter under the concrete culverts provided for mortar attacks.
Redemption, which was built for 2,500 inmates but holds about 3,300 at the moment, is an open-air prison and all that remains of the US military's presence at Abu Ghraib, the facility that was formerly synonymous with Saddam Hussein's brutality and is now synonymous with the brutality of the US occupation. The cellblocks where the abuse scandal took place were turned over to the Iraqi justice system last spring.
As we slog through the mud to visit soaked soldiers at the camp (interviews with detainees are not allowed), a US spokesman says military officials in Iraq have requested that Redemption be replaced with a more permanent facility alongside Camp Cropper at Baghdad International Airport, where the United States has a military base and houses about 100 "high value" detainees. In part, the aim is to provide the prisoners with more suitable dwellings, but it also reflects the lack of safety on the few miles of road between the airport and Abu Ghraib. The Abu Ghraib site is often attacked by insurgents, as are the police in Abu Ghraib village.
Two years after the US invasion of Iraq, the theater-level detainee population is approximately 9,100, the highest it has been. The theater-level facilities are Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca in the south (the largest) and Camp Cropper at the airport. At any given time, there are 1,000-1,500 detainees at the nontheater level at various military bases around the country. Some of these are released without charge and others are eventually transferred to the theater-level facilities. But prisoners are essentially off the books until that point.
Despite the expanding prison population, the US military controls no more ground than it did when major combat operations ended two years ago. Abu Ghraib is a place I've visited intermittently throughout my time in Iraq, usually to conduct interviews with families waiting outside the prison for information or to visit family members. Like most military/government installations in and around Baghdad, the most notable change over the past two years is the continuing addition of concrete and earth-filled blast barriers and concertina wire, pushing visitors ever farther from the walls of the actual complex. All roads out of the capital are considered extremely dangerous, and the entire time we are outside the prison, we hear explosions in the surrounding town.
Some former detainees allege that abuse continues to occur at base detention facilities as well as at the theater level, including the use of electric shocks during interrogation, beatings and stress positions. "I was made to stand for two days at a time. Almost every night they took us out of our cells and beat us," says Mustafa, a 24-year-old who was arrested in November at his home in southern Baghdad. "They often used [tazers], which would knock people out for five minutes at a time." Mustafa says he was held at Scania, a base on the city's southern edge, for nearly a month, and that he never received a formal detainee identification bracelet, which prisoners receive at theater level. "They just wrote numbers on our hands with a marker. That was how they identified us."
There have been 11,670 releases from the system during the past two years, more than 4,500 of them approved by a review board, established last August, that consists of three US military and six Iraqi lawyers. Some Iraqi lawyers have complained that the process does not work quickly enough and that not enough prisoners have been released, but US Army Maj. Robert Berry of the 306th Military Police, a reserve battalion from New York and the unit in charge of Redemption, sums up the review board's dilemma succinctly: "You don't know if the person you're releasing is your next suicide bomber," he says.
The main complaint of the families now is the number of juveniles the military is holding--106, according to US military figures. Standing in line with hundreds of others outside Camp Redemption, Iqbal Ali Khadim does not look up when US troops on the prison perimeter fire a rocket in the direction of some of the houses across the highway, but she breaks into tears at the mention of her 12-year-old son, Ali. "I just want him to be out. The last time I visited him, he told me they had beat him. He said they put him in the hospital for three days. They think he was going to be a suicide bomber," she says. Ali, along with his father, two older brothers and a pair of uncles, was arrested at Khadim's home in Yusefiya, south of Baghdad, two months ago. She says the following day she plans to make the daylong trip to Camp Bucca in Umm Qasr, south of Basra, where Ali's brothers and uncles are being held, accused of supporting the insurgency.
As Hiba (the translator I work with) and I return to the parking lot after our most recent visit, we notice that a man who has been watching us closely the entire time is now on his cell phone and waving toward people in the lot. Bassim, our driver, who has already covered our license plate with mud to make it harder for anyone to call people on the road ahead with specific information about the car, starts the engine before we arrive. As we get in, another car pulls up behind us. Two men get in and the chase is on. All this takes place 500 meters or so from the walls of the prison. Save for the US troops on the perimeter, no other security, Iraqi or American, is to be seen.
Once out of the parking lot, Bassim weaves through a local market, expertly dodging pedestrians and livestock at high speed as we gradually pull away from the car behind us. When we get on the open highway he punches the accelerator up to 100 mph and we lose sight of the other car. Insurgents or would-be kidnappers? I'm relieved I don't have the chance to find out.
Two things became clear as the negotiations to form a government dragged on: American pacification efforts have stalled, and the euphoria accompanying the January 30 elections is beginning to evaporate. "The insurgents are increasing, and the reason is that the new government has not met yet--it encourages them to go on with their attacks," said Said Rashid, a political science professor at Baghdad University, just before the March 16 opening of Parliament. Baghdadis have grown resigned to life under the state of emergency that was declared in November. Spokesmen at the oil and electricity ministries say attacks on their employees and infrastructure averaged at least one a day last year and will rise this year.
"The war is getting worse," says a furniture dealer who spent years in exile in London but returned to help pull down the statue of Saddam in central Baghdad's Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, a shot broadcast around the world. "I thought after the war it would be OK to open a business here. Now I can't even negotiate with my customers -- I'm afraid that if I say no, they might kidnap or kill me. I was optimistic before, but now I think I will return to Britain."
Iraqis hope the 275-member national assembly will bring change. It is charged with writing a permanent constitution and setting up a system to elect a permanent government in December (likely prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told me last month he would like to see direct elections for prime minister and the national assembly rather than the representational ones that have led to much of the wrangling since the January elections). But Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the two main parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition that garnered the largest share of January's vote, has another burning issue he expects the assembly to address.
"We are working to make the American forces and the non-American forces no longer exist. There is no nation in this world that's free and has dignity that would agree to have foreign forces on its land," Hakim told me in an interview last week. I asked him if this includes the apparently permanent US bases that are being built all over the country. "Iraqi people want a full pullout of the American forces," he replied.
Hakim blamed US and British policy for the country's continued instability and said Iraqis can do better. "They depend on figures with connections to the previous regime and didn't give the chance to the honest, good Iraqis to take part to be in charge," he said. Hakim and other members of the UIA have been extremely critical of US-appointed prime minister Iyad Allawi's repeal of US proconsul Paul Bremer's de-Baathification order. Essentially, Hakim plans to gut the Interior Ministry, replacing the current administration with his own people. Whether this will work or create further division within the government remains to be seen.
But the real trick will be winning over a dubious populace. Like millions of others, Ahmed Hassan, a businessman, risked his life by voting on January 30. As he sipped coffee in a Baghdad cafe, he lamented the lack of progress since then and compared the mindset of the populace now to that under Saddam: "To be honest, we are just fooling ourselves that it's getting better. In the past, we used to say 'the embargo will be lifted today or tomorrow,' but it never was."