A new U.S. push to release more detainees in Iraq

The US implements a program to release those not deemed a threat.

Ceerwan Aziz/Reuters
Ceremony: US military police watch as about 300 detainees are released at Baghdad Airport.

The US military, in a move to foster "goodwill and reconciliation," has this month released 300 detainees in Iraq who are no longer considered a threat.

The release reflects the beginning of a push by the military to release thousands of individuals who have been held for months or even years but who were never charged with wrongdoing.

The move also represents a careful balancing act for the military: While counterinsurgency experts say there is an inherent value to releasing individuals who are not considered an "imperative threat" to society, military commanders remain concerned that releasing too many too soon could undermine improving security trends in Iraq.

During a series of meetings that ended last month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, worked with subordinates to hammer out an agreement under which thousands of detainees could be let go. Under the new approach, representatives from each command sit on review boards to assess the cases of the roughly 24,000 individuals currently held in US detention in Iraq.

Now, the US military is releasing as many as 50 individuals per day. The military says it has no quota, but if it continues at that rate, it could release about 18,000 this year – more than double the number released last year.

"We've tried to review as many cases as we can and assess as many as we can, and release as many who are not an imperative threat," says Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth Marshall, a spokesman for Task Force-134, which oversees detainee operations for the US military command in Iraq.

The number of detainees being released versus the number being put in detention is roughly the opposite of what it was a year ago. In January 2007, the military took in about 1,500 individuals and released about 600. Last month, about 700 were put in detention and about 1,160 were released.

While it is hard to determine the recidivism rate for those released, it appears to be very low, defense officials say.

A combination of factors has contributed both to the numbers reversal and to the improved security situation, officials say – for example, the "surge" of about 23,000 US combat forces last year and the standing down of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his army.

The commander who oversees the detention facilities, Marine Maj. Gen. Doug Stone, has in recent months pushed to release as many detainees not deemed to be a threat as possible.

Under General Stone, Task Force-134 runs programs that identify detainees who don't hold hardened views of the Iraqi government and coalition forces. Those individuals are then provided education – including some programs led by local sheikhs – in an attempt to eradicate extremist views.

Stone inherited a detention system in which rioting and other insurgent activity were commonplace. Since last year, as individuals were separated depending upon the threat they posed, and education programs and the review boards began, much of that has ceased.

Releasing individuals from detention, even if they are not considered a threat, must be handled properly, says T.X. Hammes, a well-known expert and author on counterinsurgency. "The release has to be handled very carefully because a lot of these people may be angry despite how they were treated," he says.

The improved security situation in many neighborhoods could also have an effect on released individuals as they return. Those who seek to foment violence may think again. "Many will go back to neighborhoods that are dramatically changed," says Mr. Hammes. "The Baghdad they left a year ago is not the Baghdad they go back to now."

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