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US and Iraqis join to stem abuse

An effort is under way to promote the rule of law among Iraqi troops who deal with detainees.

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"We do it a different way" from the Americans, says an Iraqi Army officer who asked not to be named. "Saddam taught people to understand power - they need to be shown who has power.

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"Sometimes Americans are too nice - they capture bad guys, and they release them and people outside ask: 'Why did you release them?' " says the officer. "I don't like my forces to use power all the time. At some point, you must be clever and decide when to use power, or to talk. But when we show the people power, that we are strong, they like that very much."

Even Major Abdul-Hameed understands the dynamic, though in his 18 months as an intelligence officer, he has been through three training courses on treatment of detainees and lectured groups of Iraqi officers. Recruits are given a booklet with guidelines.

"Everywhere, there are good and bad people," says Abdul-Hameed. "On Haifa Street, we have lost a lot of martyrs, and [soldiers] have lost a friend. They know who did it, and when they arrest and bring in [a suspect], they beat him from Haifa Street to here, because they can't stand seeing the terrorist."

The officer says that more than 90 percent of detainees arrive "without abuse. Hopefully, in the future, we can eliminate these [abuse] cases."

Iraqis and US forces have begun by improving conditions for Abdul-Hameed's detainees and others at the many initial holding facilities that have, until now, often run with little oversight.

But high-level US attention - in the form of visits to this base by one general twice in recent days, and by top military lawyers - has already brought change.

"This is a work in progress," says Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Almand, leading a visitor and Iraqi officers to the separate detention structure. Ringed with layers of barbed wire, it faces a blank wall, with a sand-bagged guard bunker in between.

"They are making strides in the right direction," says Sergeant Almand, from Ragley, La.

The three plywood-floor cages now have grungy mattresses to sleep upon. Three portable toilets have replaced the overflowing latrine. Up to 50 suspects were crammed into this sweltering space at a time, though a US military tent has now been put up for overflow.

Detainees are supposed to be held for no more than 24 hours before being released or sent to a larger facility. But overworked interrogators - often without a clear sense of procedure or authority - created a bottleneck. One prisoner was here 23 days, another 77 days. Two Iraqi judges came last week to deal with 27 cases. They held initial hearings and emptied the holding cage.

"The situation is definitely improving, and we are now directed to intervene in cases where prisoner abuse takes place," says 1st Lt. Bill Barthen, from Superior, Wis.

"I don't care if a certain prisoner will get 25 years, or be sentenced to hanging, or if he will be released because there is no evidence - I treat them all the same," says Abdul-Hameed, noting that Iraq's brutal recent past is "very sensitive."

"In this new regime, the time of unfair, unjust [measures] has gone - we can get confessions out of detainees without beating them," says the Iraqi major. "The page of darkness has fallen down."