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Do U.S. prisons in Iraq breed insurgents?

Nearly 30,000 detainees crowd two American-run detention facilities, and one US officer wants to set many free.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 2007



Washington

American officials have detained thousands of insurgents in the months since the surge of forces began this spring, in an effort that most agree has improved security in Iraq. But now the commander of the American detention facilities in Iraq is wondering aloud if holding all those detainees is breeding a "micro-insurgency" and asking whether it's time to begin releasing thousands of people.

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The two main detention facilities operated by the US military in Iraq, at Camp Bucca near Basra and Camp Cropper in Baghdad, have swollen to hold nearly 30,000 detainees. That's not the 40,000 individuals Army Gen. David Petraeus allotted for when American forces began to implement the Baghdad security plan this spring. But it may be too many, says Marine Maj. Gen. Doug Stone, who oversees detainees for the US-led force.

Holding thousands of "moderate" detainees runs counter to the notion of winning over a population in a classic counterinsurgency, he says. General Stone believes many of these Iraqi insurgents were never motivated by anything more than money and most only desire to live peacefully. Many can be safely released back to society, back to their families and in their neighborhoods without straining security or their communities, he says. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph included details about detainee uniforms that were incorrect.]

Stone believes that there should be debate about how many detainees US forces continue to hold and how many should now be freed.

"I am of the strong viewpoint that there is [now] enough confidence in the process that I'm a champion for releasing those for whom the process has worked and who are essentially a reduced security threat to the coalition," says Stone in a phone interview from Camp Bucca.

Indeed, the nature of the war may be shifting. The Pentagon's quarterly assessment of security and stability in Iraq, released on Tuesday, shows that violence is down across the country. Roadside bombings, for example, have dropped by 68 percent since June.

Stone, a Marine reservist who has headed a number of software development firms, is known for his passion and deliberate approach to understanding the nature of insurgencies. He is calling attention to the issue because he thinks it's time to rethink holding so many detainees at this phase of the war. As the commander of detention operations, he can provide input on the release of detainees through a new board process, but the commanders in the field who send individuals to him have the ultimate input on whether someone should be held or let go. But some commanders are resistant to letting detainees go.

Stone, who doesn't participate in field operations, recognizes that his perspective is from "inside the wire."

Commanders whose troops detain insurgents and other criminals for activities against their own men may have another way of looking at it.

"I'm not on the ground looking at their situation, and they're not in the detention facility seeing these people," says Stone.

He made an impassioned plea recently when Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway paid a visit to Bucca in November. General Conway came away impressed with the programs Stone has implemented there and is concerned that the growing number of detainees doesn't make sense anymore.

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