The recent spate of bombings and violence in Iraq has led the authorities to blame prisoners released by the Americans as one major cause. Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) the U.S. is to either release all detainees or turn them over to the government. In December 2008 American forces held over 15,000 Iraqis. Even before the SOFA was signed the U.S. had been stepping up its process of releasing them, letting 16,000 out in the first ten months of 2008. In 2007 the commander of U.S. detention facilities set up an extensive program to rehabilitate the Iraqis held by giving them religious, educational, and vocational classes. Now about 50 Iraqis are being released a day. By the summer of 2009 the American military plans to close down their main prisons, and release all but 2,500-5,000 that are considered the worst prisoners by the end of the year.
When the U.S. began releasing prisoners in 2007 it raised concerns of American commanders, and it now has become an issue with Iraq’s politicians. In February 2008, U.S. officers told the Christian Science Monitor that they were worried that the ex-detainees might jeopardize security. In October, the police chief in Ramadi said that he was keeping a close eye on former prisoners, and paying some of them to be spies. As more were released, an Iraqi police colonel in a town in Anbar said he was being overwhelmed by ex-prisoners, and had arrested 70 of them. The deputy police commander in Fallujah said they were looking for 10% of the detainees, while an intelligence officer at the Interior Ministry was worried about Shiite militants regrouping as Special Groups in Basra and Baghdad. He claimed 60% of the prisoners were returning to militancy. These were all local officials expressing their concerns.
When a spate of mass casualty bombings occurred in Baghdad however, the issue became a national one. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave an interview with the BBC at the end of April 2009 where he blamed the attacks on the Americans’ release program. It was then announced in May that the government was beginning a program to re-capture many of the people let go by the Americans. Later in the month the Prime Minister said that he wanted to amend the Amnesty Law passed in February 2008, claiming that it released too many prisoners. While Baghdad has announced that 132,838 people had been amnestied as of May 18, 2009 only around 6,300 were actual prisoners that were released. The rest were people on bail, parole or had warrants on them.
Freeing prisoners held by the U.S. was a major concern of the Iraqis during the negotiations over the SOFA. 85% were said to be Sunnis, and the main Sunni party the Iraqi Accordance Front and its leader Vice President Tariq Hashemi had been pushing for their release for years. The handover of prisoners by the Americans was also a sign of Iraq’s sovereignty. That symbolic gesture may now be coming to an end. It’s likely that some of these former prisoners are returning to their insurgent and militia pasts now that they are free. At the same time, Baghdad is searching for scapegoats to divert attention away from the increase in attacks and deaths. Together they give a powerful incentive for the government to begin rounding people up, at least for the time being, to show that the security forces are doing something to counter the rash of violence.
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