Iraq Arrests Up; So Are Questions of Justice

Abdul Rahman Shimmari was getting ready for bed one night last March when the cops kicked in his door. They jabbed him with AK-47s and punched him in the face as he cried out to his kids. Within minutes, Shimmari and his teenage son had been slapped into plastic handcuffs and thrown into the back of a police pickup. As the truck sped away, one of the Iraqi policemen shouted, "You Sunni dogs!"

Two days later, Shimmari, a Baghdad college professor who asked that his real name not be used for his safety, was transferred to Saddam Hussein's former military-intelligence headquarters, now the Edala prison. There, Shimmari claims, he both witnessed and was subjected to beatings by guards. Independent human-rights monitors who have interviewed other prisoners at the jail recount similar tales. "This was a dark place," says Shimmari, choking up at the memory.

This is the other side of the surge: as thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops flood Baghdad's neighborhoods, the jails are also filling up. According to figures from the Ministry of Human Rights, the number of Iraqis detained nationwide from the end of January until the end of March—a period that includes the first six weeks of the new Baghdad security plan—jumped by approximately 7,000 to 37,641. U.S. forces swept up 2,000 prisoners a month in March and April, almost twice the average from the second half of last year. Iraqi arrest numbers are roughly equivalent. Some of these detainees are falling into a kind of legal limbo, held for weeks without a hearing. Others are allegedly suffering even worse fates. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is worried enough that he issued an open letter to American advisers paired up with Iraqi units last week: "It is very important that we never turn a blind eye to abuses, thinking that what Iraqis do with their own detainees is 'Iraqi business'."

The issue has fueled fierce criticism in Baghdad. A recent United Nations human-rights report warns of a "lack of judicial guarantees in the handling of suspects." Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a Sunni, raised the issue of holding prisoners without charge with Dick Cheney on the U.S. vice president's visit to Baghdad last week. This week the ministers of Interior and Defense have both been called to answer questions about detainees before Parliament. "Most parliamentarians have asked the government to investigate this issue," says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. For their part, Iraqi commanders say that while there may be individual cases of abuse, the problems are not systemic.

U.S. commanders knew they'd be hauling in hundreds of new suspects as they sought to root out insurgents and death-squad killers in Baghdad. Before the surge started, preparations were made to handle the influx. Hundreds of detainees were moved to facilities outside Baghdad, including some in Kurdistan, to make room. An additional 2,000 military police have also been ordered up.

But detentions, like the security plan itself, are a joint effort. About half the detainees in Baghdad end up in Iraqi prisons run by the Iraqi Army, police and Ministry of Justice. And while U.S.-run detention centers have been much more strictly monitored since the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004, local jails remain black holes. "Torture and abusive behavior are widespread," says an independent monitor who has inspected Baghdad-area detention facilities, and who asked for anonymity in order to maintain access to prisons.

The Iraqi government has had a mixed record in dealing with abuse allegations. In late 2005, the then Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari formed a commission to investigate the Jadiriyah facility, an underground bunker in east Baghdad where hundreds of prisoners had been tortured. The result? No charges were filed against any security officers, and the commission's report was never released. A later investigation into another jail known as Site 4 also led to few arrests: 57 officers were accused, but only one has been taken into custody since last year.

The crush of new prisoners is only adding to the chaotic atmosphere within Iraqi jails. U.S. military officials do confront their Iraqi counterparts with abuse allegations and conduct periodic joint inspections of Iraqi facilities. "We're constantly sending signals that we're watching, to make them stay in line," says Lt. Col. Steven Miska, the deputy commander of a U.S. task force at Forward Operating Base Justice, where Edala prison is located.

But many prisoners never file reports for fear of retaliation, and U.S. investigators often face a wall of obfuscation. Some detainees say their Iraqi jailers threatened to kill them if they talked to the Americans. On more than one occasion at Edala, says Shimmari, guards hid underage detainees in guard towers during inspections. Miska says a handful of serious abuse cases are currently being investigated at the facility by a joint committee of Americans and Iraqis, and formal indictments may soon be issued. "There's a different cultural thing on this treatment of detainees," he says.

For their part, Iraqi security officials say the problem is overblown. "I'm not saying there aren't individual violations," says Abdul Karim Khalaf, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. "But there's a great change at the prisons." Signs of that change can be hard to discern: on a recent visit to a Baghdad detention facility, representatives from the Ministry of Human Rights were slapped around by prison guards, according to Ahmed Attar, head of the humanitarian-affairs department at the ministry.

The long-term question is whether mass arrests are actually counterproductive. According to former detainees, community leaders and even Iraqi officials, many prison facilities have become breeding grounds for extremists. New prisoners are quickly won over by, or bullied into joining, militants in the jails. "The biggest school for Al Qaeda is prison," contends Zaidan al-Jabri, an influential sheik from Anbar province who's lived in Jordan since 2005 to escape the instability back home. "All these banned books are allowed in. Speeches and lectures by Al Qaeda terrorists are let in." Omar Jubouri, the head of the human-rights organization in the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party, is even more explicit. "These detainees will come out in the form of car bombs and suicide bombs," he says.

Even if he's right, the prison population is likely to grow as more troops deploy in Baghdad. Although Iraqi law mandates a judicial review for detainees within six months, many are kept in custody for much longer periods without being charged. Detainees lucky enough to get out of prison often do so by paying bribes. One former prisoner who asked to remain anonymous for his safety says that at Edala, guards were asking families for roughly $15,000 to $20,000 to free their relatives. Shimmari says he worked his way out in late March by using political connections. "There are a lot of innocent people there who weren't as lucky as me," he says. And there are bound to be many more.