Special thanks to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which provided a grant to assist David Enders’s work.
It may seem hard to imagine a place where people incarcerated by the US military have fewer rights than they do in Guantánamo Bay.
Welcome to Iraq.
It is just after 4 am, and hundreds of Iraqis are lining up to visit their relatives outside Camp Bucca, which in August held about 18,000 detainees. Near the Kuwaiti border, Bucca shimmers in the predawn of the southern Iraqi desert, a beacon of light in a country where electricity is on for no more than twelve hours a day. It is the US military’s largest detention center in Iraq. The total number of those officially in US custody in Iraq has fluctuated between a low of 7,200 and more than 26,000 since 2005.
The three hotels in Zubair, one of the closest towns to Bucca, are always full. “We don’t have tourism here,” says Jabbar Mubarak, the clerk at the Tower of Babil, Zubair’s largest hotel. “Everyone who comes to our hotel comes to visit their sons.” The lobby swarms with families, some of whom have driven more than ten hours. Despite major offensives in the past year against the Mahdi Army, Iraq’s largest Shiite militia, about 80 percent of those in custody here are Sunni and hail from the central and northern parts of the country.
One of the biggest complaints is that the vast majority of detainees have not been charged with any crime. “Why don’t the US forces charge him if he has done something? Then at least we would know how long he will be here,” said Hadia Khalaf, whose son Qusay was arrested in September 2007. “He was our provider,” she said, reflecting the plight of many families who rely on extended family and charity to survive.
Since 2003 approximately 96,000 Iraqis have been officially detained by the US military, with 100,000 more having been temporarily detained but never sent to a theater-level internment facility like Bucca. The other theater-level facility currently open is Camp Cropper at Baghdad Airport, which serves as the system’s in- and out-processing center and holds about 3,000 detainees, including roughly 300 juveniles.
The legal basis for detentions stems from a single line of a 2004 UN Security Council resolution, which has been renewed every year since by agreement between the US and Iraqi governments. This resolution, which gives the legal justification for continued US military occupation, allows “internment where this is necessary for imperative reasons of security.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are negotiating a status of forces agreement between the two governments that they hope to reach by the end of the year, when the current UN mandate expires. A key issue at stake is detentions, part of a broader area of contention between the two governments over the rights that US troops should have to operate unilaterally in Iraq. The Iraqi government has demanded that the US military no longer be allowed to detain Iraqis without its approval. The State Department and White House have been largely mum about the discussions, while Maliki’s office has regularly leaked parts of the agreement and says that the final sticking points are whether US troops will continue to be immune from prosecution under Iraqi law and the extent to which the US military will have to coordinate with and receive approval from the Iraqi government before launching operations.