Cover Story

The long goodbye

"The long goodbye" Continued...

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

So prison commanders started talking to detainees, discovering, not surprisingly, that many "were not avowed jihadists but Iraqi civilians spurred on by pragmatic considerations," writes researcher Jeffrey Azarva in the latest Middle East Quarterly. In many cases "a confluence of factors contributed to the average detainee's arrest, such as illiteracy, fear of reprisal, underemployment, and the enticement of cash." It didn't help that al-Qaeda was paying $200 to $300 a month to plant roadside bombs.

Now U.S. commanders separate the "low-value" detainees from what they consider hardened terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, they offer them incentives to forsake jihadism: vocational training, education programs, family visitation, payment for labor in the camps, an opportunity to have their case heard before a review committee, and the prospect of release.

With the help of Iraqis, U.S. officers also discovered a 1957 Iraqi law that is making prisoner releases more successful. Those eligible must go before an Iraqi judge and take an oath not to engage in fighting. But the law goes one step further: Local guarantors, usually a tribal leader and a family member, must sign for the release. If the freed man returns to crime or insurgent activity, the guarantors can be held responsible-and authorities know where to find them.

In this way U.S. forces released over 18,000 prisoners in 2008, with only about 150 coming back, according to Brig. Gen. David Quantock, U.S. commander of the military detainee program.

At Baghdad's Camp Cropper, the other U.S. detention facility, U.S. guards segregate detainees wearing loud yellow overalls and plastic sandals into separate wings, depending on whether they are hard-core and whether they are affiliated with al-Qaeda or the Mahdi army. The tempo at Camp Cropper is anything but static. Since Jan. 1, when the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government took effect, new detainees must go before an Iraqi court. Quantock told reporters recently that the prisons expect to release about 50 detainees per day this year. Terrorists considered "irreconcilables" will remain behind bars. And assuming the review system involving the courts remains in place, then there's recourse for sectarianism and prisoner abuse, recent hallmarks of Iraq's prison system.

Americans forget that Iraq once had one of the best education systems in the Arab world and a very high-quality judiciary. That's why Saddam had to bypass the system and create his own set of revolutionary courts. There weren't enough judges who would tow the Baath Party line," observes the Vanderbilt law professor, Michael Newton.

Newton has been in close contact with Iraqi judges since 2003. A West Point graduate who served in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a war crimes advisor at the State Department, he says U.S. officials and most Americans underestimate the capability of Iraq's judiciary system.

Newton helped Iraqi jurists draft the statute creating the Iraq High Tribunal to try crimes committed by the Baathist regime-even before Saddam's capture in December 2003. Then he worked alongside those appointed to the tribunal, joining a panel of international law experts to provide training in London to Iraqi judges (Saddam had prevented judges and lawyers from traveling outside the country, leaving most of them decades behind on legal developments). He told me he "grew to really respect the character of the judges"-and with law professor Michael P. Scharf authored Enemy of the State (2008, St. Martin's Press), a chronicle of Saddam's trial and execution.

To most Americans that trial turned into a circus culminating in a hasty and indecorous death by hanging. Newton believes that was less about flaws in the system than about the cult of Saddam, who continued to cast a shadow of fear over the proceedings both inside and outside the courtroom.

Americans saw his courtroom outbursts as a way to spread resentment of U.S. forces and to distract from the charges of mass killings and war crimes.

Saddam tried to divulge the secret location of the courtroom, shouted at the chief judge, "Go to hell!" and called on Iraqis to attack American and Iraqi officials. Court officers forced his return to the courtroom (required by law) after he boycotted the proceedings and went on a hunger strike.

For Iraqis the melodrama served to remind them what kind of dictator Saddam was, a man on the loose who cared little for their welfare. One eyewitness to mass killings ordered by Saddam in the town of Dujail was among the few to testify openly during the trial. He later paid for it: Two cousins and a nephew were killed subsequent to his courtroom appearance, and his brother was shot in the legs and crippled.


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