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The Conflict in Iraq

U.S. Plans Expansion of Crowded Iraq Prisons

June 26, 2005|Ashraf Khalil and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Faced with a ballooning prison population, U.S. commanders in Iraq are building new detention facilities at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Bucca near the Kuwaiti border and are developing a third major prison, in northern Iraq.

The burgeoning number of detainees has also resulted in a lengthy delay in plans for the U.S. to transfer full control of Abu Ghraib to the Iraqi government.

Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, who oversees U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, had planned to be out of Abu Ghraib by early spring. "I believed it until mid-December, but the numbers just weren't going that way," he said. "Business is booming."

The new timeline calls for the U.S. to stop using Abu Ghraib by February, at which point the entire prison would be turned over to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

After the scandal over abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, President Bush had advocated demolishing Abu Ghraib "as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning."

But the Iraqi government has begun using the prison, which was a notorious torture center under Saddam Hussein, to house prisoners convicted under its nascent criminal justice system. The prison, just west of Baghdad, is currently a joint facility, with the U.S. Army and the Iraqi government housing detainees in separate compounds.

Aggressive operations against insurgents over the last six months have brought a flood of prisoners to U.S.-run facilities -- including many believed to be hard-line rebels who have attacked American troops.

The number of prisoners held by the U.S. in Iraq reached record levels this month before falling slightly. As of Saturday, the average prisoner total in June stood at 10,783, up from 7,837 in January and 5,435 in June 2004.

The two main U.S. Army-run prisons, Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, are operating near their maximum or "surge" emergency limits. On Saturday, the two prisons together held 10,178 inmates, with 1,630 detainees awaiting processing in different Army divisional and brigade headquarters.

"We're pushing our surge capacity," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill in Baghdad.

The Army is expanding both sites and working on the third major prison, near Sulaymaniya, which would house up to 2,000 prisoners; the additions will increase the total U.S. long-term detention capability to more than 16,000 prisoners.

Both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca are considered volatile facilities where guards must be on constant lookout for potential riots and escape attempts. The detention of the Iraqis is among the most controversial U.S. practices in Iraq, triggering daily demands for the release of most prisoners from Iraqi lawmakers, clerics and community leaders.

The potential effect of the crowding on both prisoners and guards could become a serious concern as Iraq moves into the heart of a broiling summer.

High stress among overworked U.S. military police is partially blamed for leading to the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners last year that made Abu Ghraib synonymous to many Iraqis with U.S. abuse. And in April, 44 troops were injured when insurgents launched a well-planned attack on Abu Ghraib, apparently aimed at freeing prisoners.

At Bucca, meanwhile, officials have witnessed a spate of escape attempts and at least two major riots in the last six months.

"It's been a challenge," said Col. James B. Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade. "Many of the people we've now captured have not given up the struggle."

Brown has reassigned MPs from other duties in Iraq, including training new Iraqi police officers, to help beef up the forces at Bucca and Abu Ghraib.

Brandenburg emphasized that he hoped to end the U.S. presence at Abu Ghraib by early next year. But with a large percentage of the detainees taken into custody in and around the capital, the general estimates he will still need the capacity to hold about 2,000 prisoners in the Baghdad area.

As a result, the eventual Abu Ghraib hand-over will coincide with an expansion of the Camp Cropper prison, which is on a U.S. base near Baghdad's international airport and houses "high value" prisoners such as Hussein and his top lieutenants.

Abu Ghraib was within 100 prisoners of its 3,500 surge limit when a new 400-person compound was completed on June 15 on the prison grounds. A second compound should open on July 20, Rudisill said.

As of June 20, Bucca's population stood at 6,450 prisoners, just 50 below its limit. Brandenburg plans to add space for 1,400 more prisoners by November.

The newest U.S.-run prison will be Ft. Suse, a former Russian-built barracks near Sulaymaniya.

"Part of it used to be a prison, so it should be easy to renovate," Brandenburg said.

The expansion campaign will cost more than $50 million: $30 million for Camp Cropper, $12 million to expand Camp Bucca, $8 million to renovate Ft. Suse and less than $1 million for Abu Ghraib.

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