BAGHDAD | U.S. military authorities in Iraq are crediting prisoner review boards and programs for Iraqis accused of terrorism-related offenses or security violations for an uptick in detainee releases this year and a recidivism rate that they say is as low as 1 percent.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, quoting figures from the detainee handling unit TF-134, said recently that more than 10,000 Iraqis in U.S. custody have been released in 2008 compared with 8,900 for all of 2007.
Task Force 134 said that for every 30 Iraqis picked up on average each day for security offenses, 45 leave Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and Camp Cropper near Baghdad for special release ceremonies in their home districts that include the signing of good-behavior agreements.
"Before I received this assignment, I was a member of a review board at one of the facilities," said Maj. Geoff Greene, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment at Coalition Outpost Callahan in northeastern Baghdad. "Of the 220 or so cases I handled, I recommended release for about 40 percent of them.
"I don't feel threatened or worried about releasing the ones I released. The reason is, I believe, some people simply got caught up in being arrested" - wrong-place, wrong-time incidents - and the others committed minor offenses and probably won't do so again.
Another little-noticed factor in reduced recidivism is that several detainees eligible for release are asking to stay in jail to complete studies begun behind bars.
The U.S. military offers a wide range of educational programs to the 23,000 or so detainees - adults and juveniles - being held at its two detention facilities, Camp Cropper near Baghdad's international airport and Camp Bucca near the southern port city of Basra.
Some parents of juvenile detainees, too, have asked that their children remain behind bars so they can continue their schooling, Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone told reporters in Baghdad.
Gen. Stone, the commanding general for U.S. detainee operations in Iraq, said U.S. forces would prefer that detainees leave when their time is finished.
U.S. forces detain Iraqis under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1790, which comes up for renewal in late December. It allows multinational forces to "take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability" of Iraq.
In August last year, the U.S. military formed Multi-National Forces Review Commission (MNFRC) panels for Iraqis in indefinite U.S. custody.
They review official records, witness statements and other evidence. They also assess any changes or additions to that information and new circumstances affecting the prisoner's status, including behavior while incarcerated. The boards, composed of U.S. military officers or noncommissioned officers, can recommend release or continued detention.
Between September and March, said Gen. Stone, about 6,000 detainees were released from Camps Cropper and Bucca.
"Only 12 of these have been recaptured," he told Agence France-Presse, adding that this represented the lowest rate of recidivism over a seven-month period since the U.S.-led invasion five years ago.
The first MNFRC review occurs at about six months into detention and every six months thereafter.
In June, Gen. Stone said, boards were meeting at about the four-month mark.
The MNFRC clock starts ticking at about 14 days after a suspect is picked up on charges ranging from the most serious - attacking U.S. troops, possession of illegal firearms or bomb-making paraphernalia - to lesser offenses, including possession of jihadist literature, which could indicate involvement with anti-American and anti-government groups.
During the first 14 days of detention, a suspect is questioned at the battalion level, and then division level if evidence warrants further processing.
During that time, the detainee receives a medical examination to document any injuries. One reason for these exams is to counter any false accusations of physical mistreatment while in detention. If exculpatory evidence is not found and Iraqi authorities have not claimed the detainee for their own prosecution, the detainee, who can be held indefinitely, is transferred to Camp Bucca or Camp Cropper.
"There's back and forth with the [Iraqi Security Forces] during the early process to check if they're wanted by Iraqi authorities or to see what other information" is available on the suspect," said Maj. Rob MacMillan, operations officer for 1-68.
"When we do the releases from here, we again give their names to the ISF and if they want them, we hand them over."
While at the major detention facilities, where hard-core extremists are separated from the rest of the population, they are counseled by a Muslim cleric, visited by a social worker and given the option to take educational classes and vocational skills classes while awaiting release.
The harsh or demeaning conditions and treatment in Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 by errant Army National Guardsmen no longer exist, military officers said.
The current number of Iraqis in U.S. detention is about 21,000.
"I'm innocent. I did nothing wrong," Tarik Aziz Fahed, a former Interior Ministry bodyguard told a Washington Times reporter Saturday. "In our [neighborhood], there were some suspected people, they had guns, and when coalition forces arrested them I was arrested too.
"All I want to do is go home now," said Mr. Fahed who is a beneficiary of the review board process, but his claim of innocence couldn't be confirmed because no documents were available.
On Saturday, he sat in a dimly lit, underground holding cell with 14 others at COP Callahan after transfer from Camp Bucca.
Fifteen months of incarceration were about to end. Despite admonitions from his U.S. Army minders, the former guard fidgeted incessantly while sitting on a wooden bench - one minute twisting his hands as if to shirk the plastic bands around his wrist, the next pushing his blindfold up and down.
He was first up when guards called for the men to stand and first in line to be taken aboveground and loaded onto an armored vehicle for the short ride to Joint Security Station Sha'ab, where family and freedom waited.
"Please, please don't do anything bad again," Kais Alwan al Mussawi, a district council member in charge of detainee affairs, told Mr. Fahed and those about to be released with him.
"We hope for a new Iraq; and if you have problems, have people threaten you, then please call the Iraqi army, the force here, the Americans and we can help you.
"We don't want to send you to jail again. It is very hard on your families. There is no one to care for them. You are starting a new life and we will help."
A snip at the wrist with scissors and the signing of the reconciliation agreement in front of family followed the official's remarks. Then came freedom.
Most U.S. troops watching the signing ceremony and the reunions couldn't help but smile. At times, some whom they didn't know even clapped them on the back or gave them hand signs of encouragement.
Others stood back, expressionless. Had the detainees attacked Americans? Would they do so in the future?
"I've done about four or five of these," said Capt. John Carter, a platoon leader with Delta Company, 1/68. "At first I felt a bit uneasy about [letting them go]. Now, I'm just indifferent."