By Jamie Findlater
American Forces Press Service
March 4, 2008 - Much has changed in the approach coalition forces take to detainees in Iraq over the past year, a senior military officer said today. "A year ago, detainee operations in Iraq were a lot different than they are now," Army Brig. Gen. Michael R. Nevin, commander of the 177th Military Police Brigade at Joint Task Force 134 in Iraq said in a conference call with online journalists and "bloggers." The task force is responsible for detainee operations and re-integration in Iraq.
"We treat everyone with dignity and respect," he said. "We have a responsibly to prepare them to go back to society."
In less than a year, the operation, headed up by Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, has changed the established philosophy, developing new practices for dealing with detainees.
The objective became focused on turning detainees from a strategic risk to a strategic advantage, knowing that those in detention would someday be released and be a part of society, Nevin explained.
A cornerstone of the team's efforts is the implementation of a Multinational Forces Review Committee, which affords detainees the opportunity to appear before a committee of officers, present a case, and provide reasons why they should no longer be held in coalition custody.
"Before, the detainees had no evidence as to whether their cases were being looked at," Nevins noted. "The opportunity to speak for themselves they found to be very satisfying, and immediately there was a reduction in detainee-on-detainee assaults, disturbances and assaults on the guards."
Other re-integration programs are also an important part of the programs' success, and all are completely voluntary.
"They have to participate voluntarily in these programs, and more than half of the detainees do," he said. In fact, Nevin reported, two sets of detainees recently walked out of a compound for extremist detainees and volunteered for the programs, even though they received death threats. "There was a group of nine about a month ago, and a group of 13 this past week," Nevin said.
An added incentive to these programs is that all of them are helpful once the detainees are released to normal society. In the basic education and literacy programs, "all schooling is tied in with Iraq's Ministry of Education, where detainees can earn actual grade levels and certificates," Nevin explained.
In addition, during religious discussion programs, "detainees can sit down with recognized clerics and discuss religious topics, going through the Quran, and come out with their own interpretation of things," he said.
There is also a push to place the detainees in solid occupations to discourage them from returning to the streets.
"We are working with the (provincial reconstruction teams) here locally, doing microgrants with small agencies, giving the detainees opportunities to call into the office and get jobs," he said. "In addition, we are working with a bigger public works program to get something initiated that would span the whole country."
As a result of this new push to understand the needs of detainees, Nevin reported that the detention centers are seeing good progress.
"The intakes are the lowest I have seen in the last year -- one-third of what they were at their peak. We now take in 27 (detainees) per day; at the peak, last summer, we took in 70."
Additionally, he said, out of 1,000 detainees released, only two of them are recaptured for further insurgent activity.
As a result of the success, the Iraqi government is taking notice and is highly involved with the program, the general said.
"Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has attended our release ceremonies, shaking hands with detainees and wishing them well," Nevins reported. "Whenever we have a release ceremony, we always have a representative from the ministry. They want to be involved; it gives them an opportunity to address these men as they return to society and give them a clear perspective of what's going on out there."
Nevins cited his own attendance at a recent ceremony that released 306 detainees. Iraq's deputy education minister presided, giving a good message of citizenship and responsibility and laying out how the country has changed while they have been in detention.
"They get a good current picture of the world and the expectations for them to return to their homes and society and not become a security threat again," Nevin said.
All in all, it is readily apparent that the new approach is working, the general said. "We are opening eyes and minds of the detainees so they can see things differently and have a different approach to their communities and their nation when they leave," he added.
(Jamie Findlater works in the New Media Branch of American Forces Information Service.)