By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
June 2, 2008 - Four years ago, Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison was center-stage amid allegations of detainee abuse, and coalition forces suddenly cast as conquerors instead of liberators, losing the trust of the Iraqi people. Conscientious decisions and new detainee programs have helped the coalition turn the corner on the road to regaining that lost trust, Multinational Force Iraq's commander of detainee operations said yesterday in a Baghdad news conference.
"Today, we are still trying to regain that trust, and I want to tell you once again there was no justification for what happened at Abu Ghraib," Army Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone told reporters. "True apologies, though, must be followed by actions which right the initial wrong, and over the past year, we have made great efforts to correct our past mistakes."
A multifaceted approach, including providing better health care and being more culturally sensitive, have led to an improved situation for those in detention, Stone said. Assessing detainees to identify and isolate extremists from the general population is an important step that allows moderate detainees to live free from fear and intimidation, he added.
The practice is proving successful. The reduction of detainee-on-detainee violence over the past six months has been dramatic, Stone said. It also has opened doors to engage the more moderate population and address some of the issues that, initially, may have contributed to their detention.
"They show us that detainees gravitated toward the insurgency because they were underemployed, undereducated, and in need of supplemental sources of income," Stone said. "To address these social problems and to promote good citizenship, we now offer detainees an array of voluntary programs to help serve as a deterrent to insurgent activity."
Programs offered to the detainees include education, vocational training, civics, Islamic discussion, and pay-for-work programs that empower moderate detainees and effectively marginalize violent extremists. Among the most important skills detainees can learn are the abilities to read and write, he said.
"Through such programs, we aim to not only peacefully reintegrate moderates into the Iraqi society, but we also encourage them to become willing and active partners in Iraq's reconstruction," Stone said. "The large number of former detainees who have returned to our facilities to help teach programs shows that we are succeeding."
It seems that's the only way most former detainees return to detention centers -- as teachers to their fellow Iraqis. The detainee population has fallen from a peak of 26,000 in the summer of 2007, to over 21,000 now.
In fact, as of February, release rates have overtaken intake rates, Stone said.
"Today we are releasing, on average, about 50 detainees each day, compared to an average daily intake of only 30 detainees," he said, adding that "miniscule re-internment" rates show the right people are being released.
"Since our engagement programs began in earnest last September, we have ... released [nearly] 10,000 detainees, but just 33 have returned to our custody."
Transparency during this transformation is key to its success as well, Stone added. Detention facilities have been open to inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights, which also has had private discussions with detainees about facility conditions.
"We also have increasingly opened our gates to the international media from Western newspapers and radio to pan-Arab news outlets and satellite networks," Stone said. "We want people to see – not just to read and not just to hear about – what goes on inside detention."
Amid all the changes to improve detainee care and treatment is the realization that detainees' families also are affected. Visitation programs are in place at Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca, and on average, more than 2,000 visits occur a week.
In fact, for the many families who can't reach Camp Bucca, a video-conferencing center has the capability to unite detainees and their loved ones, Stone said.
"Ultimately, we realize that no matter how much we have revolutionized the conduct of detainee operations over the past year, at the end of the day, detention is still detention," he said, adding that he believes detention is a critical task serving both U.S. and Iraqi interests.
"By prioritizing population protection inside our detention centers," Stone said, "we are ensuring that violent extremists remain isolated – both physically and ideologically. With their marginalization, we can begin to reintegrate the vast majority of detainees who are moderate back into society in a safe and secure manner."
The hope is that reintegrated detainees who have participated in training and other programs offered in detention facilities will aid in the creation of a "vibrant and a robust civil society" in Iraq, the general said.