BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The transfer of thousands of Iraqi prisoners from the U.S. military to Iraq’s government is underway and should be mostly complete by the end of 2009, the U.S. general in charge of the programme said on Wednesday.
The handover of 14,700 Iraqis in U.S. custody after years of insurgency and sectarian warfare is mandated by a bilateral security pact that also calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by mid-2009 and withdraw entirely by end-2011.
As of January 1 this year, the U.S. military lost the right, once granted by a U.N. Security Council mandate, to hold prisoners in Iraq indefinitely without charge.
All detainees must be set free, or handed over local authorities if there are outstanding warrants.
The process has been slow to kick off, creating strains between Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-led government and minority Sunni Arabs, who formed the bulk of the insurgency against the U.S. invaders and now make up most of the detainees.
“We expect to transfer them to Iraqi control or release them by the end of the year,” Brigadier General David Quantock, commander of the U.S. detention operations in Iraq, told Reuters after attending a ceremony marking the release of 105 Iraqis.
“That’s our goal. It may go a little bit into (2010) but we’re hopeful and we’re pretty confident that we can get through the transfer and release by the beginning of next year.”
At the ceremony Quantock attended at Camp Cropper, a U.S. detention centre near Baghdad airport, the Iraqi detainees listened to officials urging them to rejoin society and help rebuild Iraq after years of bloodshed.
“As you now walk a path of freedom, you will find an Iraq of freedom. And you will find that everybody now has to take part and cooperate to make a success of this country. We must all forgive and leave behind the excess of hatred,” acting Iraqi Justice Minister Safaaeddine al-Safi said.
An American military band interspersed speeches with the Iraqi national anthem and other tunes.
The detainees sat in patient rows, dressed in shiny, blue-green shirts, smart trousers and black woollen caps with cell block letters “D” or “B” sewn on the front.
They were handed certificates attesting to computer skills or other abilities learned during their detention.
“I have to say here is better than Iraqi prisons,” said a Sunni Arab detainee from Baghdad who asked, in English, to be identified only as Hussein.
“But you ask me why I am here, that’s something different. I am here for no reason,” said Hussein, who had served 7-1/2 months in U.S. custody without being charged with a crime, after previously spending a year in a U.S. military jail.
“And then, bye, bye, that’s it, without any rights. They give us $25 (17.40 pounds). That is the return on our suffering. We get $25.”
Hussein said the difficulties he and other detainees faced were unlikely to end with their release. Being suspected by the U.S. military of terrorism gave them a permanent “red mark.”
He expects that every time he is subjected in the future to an Iraqi security check, he will be called aside “for five minutes.” “Five minutes here means six months, really,” he said.
And then there are other issues, he said.
“They give us to Iraqi police. That is another story and another suffering. You know that the Iraqi police is corrupted? They take thousands of dollars just to get (us) released.”
Editing by Matthew Jones