U.S. releasing Iraqi prisoners

BAGHDAD -- In recent months, the American military has begun freeing many of the Iraqi prisoners it's been holding without charges and aims to release all of them by December 2009, according to U.S. military data and interviews with military officials.

In the five and a half years since the Iraq war began, U.S. troops have arrested and detained roughly 100,000 Iraqis, almost all of them without formal criminal charges. A year ago, 26,000 Iraqis were in American military detention, more than at any other point since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. About 17,000 remain imprisoned, but that number is dropping fast.

Brig. Gen. David Quantock, the U.S. deputy commanding general in charge of detainee operations in Iraq, told McClatchy Newspapers that he thinks the vast majority of detainees who remain in custody aren't dangerous. Most of them participated in the insurgency because they were paid to do so or because they were threatened, he said. "I think it's a small number who are here because they really believe in the ideology of it."

Within the next 14 months, Quantock said, the military hopes to turn over a few thousand detainees who are considered the most dangerous for prosecution under Iraqi law. The rest will be released, he said.

American troops also have arrested about half as many Iraqis so far this year as they did in the first 10 months of last year, according to military data. On average, the U.S. now is releasing 50 detainees each day and arresting 24 new ones.

By next summer, Quantock said, the military plans to close Camp Bucca, the larger of its two remaining prisons in Iraq, which holds all but a few thousand of the Iraqis who are still in U.S. custody. A prison that the military is building to replace Bucca will be opened and turned over to Iraqi authorities within a year or so, Quantock said.

"We're obviously not going to be running detention facilities in Iraq forever," he said. "It reaches a point where you need a plan for a safe transition, and that's what we're doing now."

The U.S. must close its prisons in Iraq before American troops can leave, but the matter is complicated by difficult negotiations with the Iraqi government over a new agreement to govern the status of U.S. forces in Iraq.

The United Nations mandate that's allowed the United States to operate in Iraq will expire at the end of this year. What will happen after that, both to American military operations in the country and to the way the U.S. handles its prisoners, isn't clear.