BAGHDAD — U.S.-run detention camps in Iraq have become a breeding ground for extremists where Islamic militants recruit and train supporters, and use violence against perceived foes, say former inmates and Iraqi officials.
Extremists conducted regular indoctrination lectures, and in some cases destroyed televisions supplied by the Americans for use with educational videos, banned listening to music on radios, forbade smoking and stoked tensions between Sunni and Shiite detainees, they said.
Iraqis swept up in security operations and held indefinitely while the Americans try to determine whether they have any links to the insurgency are susceptible to the extremists' message, former detainees said.
Their accounts of life in Camp Cropper, the main U.S. detention center at the Baghdad airport, indicate that three years after the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison, the U.S. is still struggling to find a balance in the way it runs its detention system.
Prisons have long served as an incubator for radicals, and mass roundups by the U.S. military after the 2003 invasion are now blamed for antagonizing Iraq's Sunni Arab population and feeding the insurgency.
After the Abu Ghraib scandal, the U.S. pledged to speed up processing of detainees, the vast majority of whom the International Committee of the Red Cross said had been wrongly arrested. But as U.S. troops continue to confront the insurgency, the inmate population has soared, to 18,000, from 10,000 in 2003.
U.S. military officials acknowledge that they are battling militants for the hearts and minds of detainees, but deny accusations that they have lost control inside the prisons, or that detainees are treated harshly. They say they have instituted counterinsurgency and educational programs, and are gearing up to launch a more direct effort to confront extremists next month.
Iraqi officials also struggle with a crowded system where prisoners can languish as long as two years before getting a trial. But they say the Americans have allowed militants to flourish in their facilities.
"It looks like a terrorist academy now," said Saad Sultan, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry's liaison to U.S. and Iraqi prisons. "There's a huge number of these students. They study how they can kill in their camps. And we protect them, feed them, give them medical care.
"The Americans have no solution to this problem," he said. "This has been going on for a year or two, we have been telling them."
A former detainee at Camp Cropper, where Hussein and other high-profile prisoners have been held, said he once watched Sunni militants attack a former police officer they suspected of being an informer. He said six men, their faces hidden by towels, gathered around the victim in a dormitory at 2 a.m.
Two kept a lookout for U.S. soldiers while one man swung a sock stuffed with rocks at the inmate's head, he said. The man tried to get up, but another pressed him down with a foot to the chest. The attackers pummeled his head, spattering themselves with his blood, until he lost consciousness.
Other prisoners then dragged the victim to the front of the hall, where the U.S. guards would find him.
"They said this man was an informer; he had been put there to spy for the Americans," said the former prisoner, who was working as a guard for a secular political party when U.S. forces detained him and seven colleagues. They were held for three months.
He identified himself only as Abu Usama; he and his colleagues, who recounted their story last week, two months after their release, spoke on condition that their full names and the name of the political party not be identified because they feared being detained again by the Americans.
Abu Usama said he had heard that the former police officer died from the beating, but that could not be confirmed.
Americans in 'denial'
An Iraqi official who works on issues related to the Sunni insurgency said he had received a report that a moderate Sunni fighter had been killed at Camp Cropper. "The report came back to me that the Americans were in complete denial," he said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "They said, 'No such thing happened. Everything is under control.' That's not true."
American military officials say the Army has deployed counterinsurgency teams inside Camp Cropper and southern Iraq's Camp Bucca, the two main U.S. detention facilities.
"We are very concerned about insurgent efforts to recruit and convert detainees inside our theater detention facilities," said Capt. Phillip Valenti, a spokesman for detainee operations. He said counterinsurgency teams work in each compound "to identify recruiters, leaders, converters, Sharia courts and take actions to interdict their efforts."
"We conduct these operations at both Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca, and also integrate our efforts across camps to further disrupt these operations," Valenti said.