CAMP CROPPER, Iraq
The U.S. military is rushing to build criminal cases against some 5,000 detainees whom it deems dangerous - including suspected members of al Qaeda in Iraq - because the proposed security pact with Iraq would end its right to hold prisoners without charge.
The agreement, which is to be voted on by Iraqi lawmakers Wednesday, is primarily intended to set a timetable calling for American troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. But it also calls for control of security matters to shift to Iraqi authorities.
If passed, the deal would mean U.S. troops could no longer hold people without charge, as they have since the 2003 invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. Beginning Jan. 1, all detentions would have to be based on evidence, and the U.S. would have to prosecute prisoners in Iraqi courts or let them go.
"At the end of the day, if there's not enough facts to justify a court case, then we'll have to release," said Brig. Gen. David Quantock, the commander of the U.S. detention system in Iraq.
The Americans have evidence against only "a few hundred" of the most dangerous detainees, Gen. Quantock said, leaving open the possibility that thousands could be back in Iraq soon.
"We have a lot of work to do," he said.
Part of the challenge stems from differences between the U.S. and Iraqi legal systems. In the United States, forensic evidence is widely used in the courts. Not so in Iraq.
"We've got a number of guys right now that are covered in TNT [explosive residue]. However, that's not admissible in Iraqi court," Gen. Quantock said. "What wins the day in Iraqi courts today is two eyewitness statements or a confession."
U.S. forces are holding about 16,500 detainees in all. The largest facility, with some 12,900 prisoners, is at Camp Bucca near the city of Basra, about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Camp Cropper, on the sprawling U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport, serves as the detention system's logistical headquarters and houses some 2,000 prisoners. All detainees entering and leaving U.S. custody pass through Cropper.
On a recent trip to the base, Associated Press journalists saw detainees dressed in yellow pants and shirts or traditional robes chatting outside low-slung, peach-colored barracks.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are mindful of the dangers posed by dumping thousands of insurgent suspects, even if minor players, into communities already grappling with high unemployment.
"The fact that they are going back to their cities and homes might complicate the security situation," said Haider al-Ibadi, a Shi'ite lawmaker with close ties to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "But we can do nothing to stop this, because the authorities cannot arrest or keep any person in custody without evidence."