New York Times
February 17, 2007
DAMASCUS, Syria — In the early hours of Jan. 6, Laith al-Ani stood in a jail near the Baghdad airport waiting to be released by the American military after two years and three months in captivity.
He struggled to quell his hope. Other prisoners had gotten as far as the gate only to be brought back inside, he said, and he feared that would happen to him as punishment for letting his family discuss his case with a reporter.
But as the morning light grew, the American guards moved Mr. Ani, a 31-year-old father of two young children, methodically toward freedom. They swapped his yellow prison suit for street clothes, he said. They snipped off his white plastic identification bracelet. They scanned his irises into their database.
Then, shortly before 9 a.m., Mr. Ani said, he was brought to a table for one last step. He was handed a form and asked to place a check mark next to the sentence that best described how he had been treated:
“I didn’t go through any abuse during detention,” read the first option, in Arabic.
“I have gone through abuse during detention,” read the second.
In the room, he said, stood three American guards carrying the type of electric stun devices that Mr. Ani and other detainees said had been used on them for infractions as minor as speaking out of turn.
“Even the translator told me to sign the first answer,” said Mr. Ani, who gave a copy of his form to The New York Times. “I asked him what happens if I sign the second one, and he raised his hands,” as if to say, Who knows?
“I thought if I don’t sign the first one I am not going to get out of this place.”
Shoving the memories of his detention aside, he checked the first box and minutes later was running through a cold rain to his waiting parents. “My heart was beating so hard,” he said. “You can’t believe how I cried.”
His mother, Intisar al-Ani, raised her arms in the air, palms up, praising God. “It was like my soul going out, from my happiness,” she recalled. “I hugged him hard, afraid the Americans would take him away again.”
Just three weeks earlier, his last letter home — with its poetic yearnings and a sketch of a caged pink heart — appeared in The Times in one of a series of articles on Iraq’s troubled detention and justice system.
After his release from the American-run jail, Camp Bucca, Mr. Ani and other former detainees described the sprawling complex of barracks in the southern desert near Kuwait as a bleak place where guards casually used their stun guns and exposed prisoners to long periods of extreme heat and cold; where prisoners fought among themselves and extremist elements tried to radicalize others; and where detainees often responded to the harsh conditions with hunger strikes and, at times, violent protests.
Through it all, Mr. Ani was never actually charged with a crime; he said he was questioned only once during his more than two years at the camp.
American detention officials acknowledged that guards used electric devices called Tasers to control detainees, but they said they did so rarely and only when the guards were physically threatened. The officials said that detainees had several ways to report abuse without repercussions, and that all claims were investigated.
Officials declined to give specific details about why they had detained Mr. Ani or why they had freed him.
“He was released because the board that reviewed his case didn’t believe he any longer posed a threat,” said First Lt. Lea Ann Fracasso, a spokeswoman for detention operations, in a written answer to questions. “He was originally detained as a security threat. I don’t have anything more.”
The Detention System
The American detention camps in Iraq now hold 15,500 prisoners, more than at any time since the war began. The camps are filled with people like Mr. Ani who are being held without charge and without access to tribunals where their cases are reviewed, the Times examination published last December found.
Mr. Ani, a women’s clothing merchant, said he was detained in 2004 after American soldiers who were searching for weapons in his six-family apartment building found an Iraqi military uniform in the basement. His joy upon being released in January was short-lived. Days later, he said, a Shiite militia ransacked his home in Baghdad, looking to kill him. He hid, going from house to house, until he could move his family out of Iraq.
Now he is among the estimated 1.5 million Iraqis who have taken refuge in neighboring Syria and Jordan, where sectarian rifts are springing up.
In one area of Damascus, Shiite refugees from Iraq have established a mini version of Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood. Sunni refugees, in turn, are forming their own enclaves. In interviews, former detainees seethed with rage at the United States.
One, a 43-year-old man from Samarra, Iraq, said he was released last year despite having fought American troops.
“I wish to go back to Iraq and fight against the Americans, God willing,” vowed the man, who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his nom de guerre, Abu Abdulla, for fear of reprisal.
Mr. Ani has other priorities, still exhausted from his detention and preoccupied with finding a permanent home. But he regularly turns his television to a new station called Al Zawra, transfixed by its running montage of videotaped attacks on American troops.
The station is owned by a Sunni, Meshaan al-Juburi, a former Iraqi politician who was indicted last year on charges of embezzling millions of American dollars; he denied the charges and returned to Syria, where he lived before the war. The station has become an information center for the Sunni insurgency and in the process has exasperated American and Iraqi forces. In an interview at his office here, Mr. Juburi said that he opposed Al Qaeda’s use of suicide bombers to kill Iraqi civilians but was soliciting support for Iraqis intent on killing American troops. When the image of a roadside bomb blowing up an American Humvee appears on the large flat screen on his office wall, his eyebrows rise and he urges his visitors to watch, “This is a good one.”
A Nightmare Begins
Mr. Ani’s ordeal began on Oct. 14, 2004, when soldiers brought him in for what he described as desultory questioning.
“ ‘Are you married? How many children? Sunni or Shiite? Which mosque do you pray in?’ ” Mr. Ani said he was asked. “I said I didn’t pray, and they said, ‘Are you not Muslim,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but I’m not praying and going to mosques.’ ”
“They never asked me about terrorism,” he said. “I’m a normal person, just a usual man, and don’t have anything to do with anyone who was fighting against the Americans.”
Mr. Ani spent a total of 44 days at two other American facilities before being sent to Camp Bucca. In all, he said, he was questioned just once at each site.
Mr. Ani said the electric prods were first used on him on the way to Camp Bucca. “I was talking to someone next to me and they used it,” he said, describing the device as black plastic with a yellow tip and two iron prongs. He said the prods were commonly used on him and other detainees as punishment.
“The whole body starts to shake and hurt,” he said. “And you lose consciousness for a couple of seconds. One time they used it on my tongue. One guard held me from the left and another on my back and another used it against my tongue and for four or five days I couldn’t eat.”
In a separate interview, the insurgent from Samarra said such a device had been used on him for speaking out of turn. Ahmed Majid al-Ghanem, 50, a former Baath Party official who was also freed from Camp Bucca and is now living in Syria, said in a separate interview that he witnessed the electric prods being used as punishment on other detainees.
The Times interviewed Mr. Ani at his apartment in Damascus, the Syrian capital, where he sat on a couch with his parents, wife and children. When he demonstrated how he had been held for the electric prod, his 4-year-old daughter, Al Budur, mimicked his actions.
Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a detention system spokesman, said: “Every use of less than lethal force, to include use of Tasers, is formally reported by facility leadership, ensuring soldiers are in accordance with proper use. Touching a Taser to someone’s tongue is not one of the approved uses.”
Mr. Ani said guards treated him kindly when he arrived at the jail on Nov. 20, 2004. He recalls being given soap, and, when his hands cracked from the cold, a soldier bringing him lotion and socks.
But soon new guards came “who had had special thoughts,” he said. “They were not allowing us to talk. They cut off the salt, gave us food that was not fit for dogs. One guard named David sometimes brought us outside to stay in the sun, or when it was cold. He also didn’t respect our faith, telling us not to pray here, and when we moved not to pray there.”
The detainees also began fighting among themselves. Those who spoke to the American guards were ostracized. Long toilet lines further raised tensions.
One day the guards searched a makeshift prayer area, Mr. Ani said, “and they started to step on the Korans, which fell down.”
“A fight started,” he continued. “There was a huge demonstration. The prisoners started to throw their shoes at the guards, and we started to beat them with empty plastic bottles. The guards shot at us with rubber bullets, but then prisoners were killed and others were injured.”
A Pentagon statement at the time described such an incident in January 2005, saying that four detainees were killed when guards were compelled to use deadly force to quell the riot and that it was set off by a search for contraband. Colonel Curry said an investigation concluded that a detainee leader had fabricated the Koran allegations to instigate violence.
Mr. Ani and other former detainees said there were frequent demonstrations to protest various grievances. Mr. Ghanem said he was released in late 2003 after hunger strikes forced camp officials to review his case and those of others.
Detention officials said they were also fighting radicalization at the camps and were trying to identify and isolate extremists. Former detainees said in interviews that the influence of Islamic extremists was still growing. At Camp Bucca, they said, hundreds of men formed a group called the Brothers. Members shaved their beards and otherwise masked their ideology so they would be placed with other detainees.
Mr. Ani generally slept in a wooden barrackslike structure, with a mattress on the ground and a nail on the wall for hanging clothes. Once, when the guards found an improvised needle that he said was used to repair clothes, he was taken to an isolated cell, where he was kept for 24 days.
“You cannot see the difference between day and night,” he said. “There was no opening, not even in the door.”
Colonel Curry said it was standard to discipline detainees when they did not follow procedure.
Mr. Ani despaired of ever being released. His letter that was printed in The Times ended with, “I hope I can be dust in the storms of Bucca so that I can reach you.”
Dangers Beyond Jail
“I didn’t see any kind of solution for me,” Mr. Ani said after his release. “The only solution was to die,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “I was hoping to die.”
In releasing Mr. Ani, the American military transferred him to Camp Cropper in Baghdad and gave him $25, which he and his parents used to hire a taxi. Along the way home, they had to dodge Shiite-controlled checkpoints, and just days later, he said, he narrowly escaped capture by a Shiite militia. Mr. Ani and other Iraqis say they believe these militias have found a way to learn when Sunni men are released from jail and then hunt and kill them.
Maj. Gen. John D. Gardner, commander of American detainee operations, said that he had heard such concerns and that he was trying to alter the process of releasing detainees to improve their safety.
Mr. Ani said that for him there was only one way to stay alive: flee Iraq.
He said he was scared and puzzled about his next step. He said he felt that he could not stay in Syria, if only because work was scarce. But he must compete with other refugees for the attention of another host country.
“Until now, I can’t sleep, really,” he said. “Whenever I hear something noisy I stand up. I’m in a very bad psychological situation. I can’t stop thinking of what we should do. I don’t have a future here. How should we live?”
When his uncle put on Al Zawra, the satellite television station, Mr. Ani turned to look at the scenes of Sunni children who had been killed and the attacks on American soldiers.
“I am an Iraqi,” he said. “I love my country. Of course, everyone who is an Iraqi at the moment, we are thinking how can we support our country.”
“The United States through its actions made people hate the Americans much more than before.”