Abu Ghraib is 'thing of the past,' general says

Even as a second soldier was convicted Monday of mistreating detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and Congress calls for more investigations, the general in charge of U.S. detention centers in Iraq where more than 11,000 suspected insurgents and terrorists are being held says prisoner abuse is a thing of the past.

Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, who took over detainee operations last November after reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib caused a worldwide furor and enraged the Arab world, said he is confident that numerous corrective measures he has put in place will prevent such abuses.
Albert Eisele
Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg

“We have instituted a range of changes, from how we train [guards] to the addition of correctional specialists, continual checks by the chain of command, a better ratio of guards to detainees, command centers inside the facilities,” as well as regular visits by Iraqi human-rights and International Red Cross representatives, and better training and facilities, he said.

He added, “We have an 85 percent reduction in allegations since April. Occasionally there is going to be abuse, but most of the abuse allegations have occurred at the point of capture. … We have a very definitive procedure, which [follows] the Uniform Code of Military Justice. We don’t fiddle around with it.”

However, Brandenburg said there has been a sharp increase in the number of detainees in recent months that has strained the capacity of the detention centers and increased the risk of violent uprisings. There are now more than 11,350 detainees, 96 percent of them Iraqis, which represents nearly a 20 percent increase since Iraq’s Jan. 30 elections.

At the same time, the new detainees “are clearly more dangerous and high risk,” Brandenburg told The Hill in an e-mail this week. “We are currently rating about 80 percent of the detainees who have arrived since Jan. 2 as high risk.”

But he said every effort is being made “to segregate those detainees with extreme views that corrupt and influence others. We have undertaken an enormous effort of watching and documenting [in both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca] those detainees. As we segregate, there is an immediate positive change.”

Brandenburg oversees some 3,400 military police who guard 3,538 prisoners at Abu Ghraib, 6,370 at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and 114 “high value” prisoners, including Saddam Hussein and his top aides, at Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad airport. An additional 1,331 suspected insurgents are being held for initial screening at other U.S. facilities.

As a result of the increased prison population and greater retention rate, U.S. coalition commanders have decided to expand the three main facilities and open a fourth by the end of this year, at a cost of $50 million, Brandenburg said.

Camp Bucca, where a large-scale escape attempt was foiled in March and where riots occurred in early April, will be expanded to accommodate 1,400 more prisoners, while Abu Ghraib will add space for 800 more detainees and Camp Cropper will grow to 2,000. Another 2,000 prisoners will be confined at a former Iraqi military camp in northern Iraq, which will be known as Camp Suse.

The influx of prisoners has also created new tensions with Iraq’s influential Sunni Arab minority, which is demanding that the detainees be tried quickly or released. But Brandenburg said that a combined review board made up of six Iraqis and three coalition officers “is only recommending release in 40 percent of the cases,” compared to 60 percent last fall.

Brandenburg emphasized, as he had during an interview while returning from Camp Bucca after the foiled prisoner escape in March, that U.S. authorities are paving the way for the new Iraqi government to assume control of the detainees through a training and oversight program.

Once the Iraqis “are comfortable and ready, we will begin to transition to them … and finally, our oversight will be reduced until they are ready to assume control,” he said, adding that it is difficult to say how long this process will take. “The Iraqis have agreed to do this and not rush to failure.”

Asked about the negative impact of Abu Ghraib on world opinion, Brandenburg said, “I think it is truly behind us. There has been a course of correction and training that has put that deviant behavior behind us.”