BAGHDAD, (IPS) – Largely lost amidst the horrors of the graphic torture photographs that continue to emerge out of Abu Ghraib is a leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross published a few weeks ago by the Wall Street Journal.
In its report, the ICRC, the only organization besides the United States military that has been allowed to inspect the prison, wrote that “ninety percent of captives were caught by mistake.”
Ninety percent? How is that possible, you ask?
Consider the case of mechanic Salahadul Karem. The middle class Sunni was sitting in his Baghdad home with his family last winter when the U.S. Army swept through his neighborhood with dozens of soldiers in Humvees.
“They arrested everyone,” he says every man at least. Karem says he was taken away along with his elder brother and his 14-year-old brother who suffers from severe mental retardation. Most neighbors were also taken away and incarcerated at a nearby U.S. military base for questioning.
“They were looking for someone who had been attacking their base,” he recalls. “His name was Mazen. So they kept asking us ‘Are you Mazen? Who is Mazen?’.”
Karem says his family was held for two days before authorities located Mazen and they were released. He was lucky. He was not taken to Abu Ghraib, but he hardly feels secure in his home.
“Two months later they came again looking for someone else,” he says. Again, they took his family to the military base for interrogation before releasing them a few days later. “The Americans don’t know the people so they don’t know who their enemies are. But every time they do this they make more enemies, and now I hate the Americans.”
Iraqis taken to Abu Ghraib are not given trials where they can prove their innocence, or even where guilt could be established. They are simply arrested, incarcerated, and interrogated by occupation forces. If their interrogators decide they are innocent, they are released. If prison authorities think they are resistance fighters, they are kept behind bars.
Outside the gates of Abu Ghraib, a man of slight build sits in the dirt next to the razor wire, waiting for his turn to see his brother rounded up in a raid a few months before. He wears the blue and gold uniform of Erinys, the multinational security firm contracted by Halliburton to guard Iraq’s oil infrastructure.
This is the second time he has had an appointment to see his brother. “The first time I came with a lawyer,” he explains. “But the American guards told me no lawyers were allowed in the prison. They said visiting was only for relatives and they turned me away. So this time I came by myself.”
He says he doubts a lawyer would make much difference anyway. Prisoners who have been released have told him the Americans had told them they think his brother is innocent, and will be released soon.
Not everyone is so optimistic.
Only a few of the families waiting outside Abu Ghraib have been granted a visit. And many of those with loved ones in American custody have not even been told where their family members are being held.
Zahara Ibd Ali’s 26-year-old son was arrested by the U.S. military a year ago in a raid that also destroyed her house. She has heard rumors that American troops killed him, but she has not yet given up hope.
“I’ve been to every prison in Iraq,” she says, rattling off a list of American detention centers from Tikrit in the north to Basra in the south. “Whenever anyone tells me a place I go there.”
She says she has sold almost everything she owns in her search for her son. “I am even ready to sell my pots because I don’t have any money to go anywhere any more. It’s not a problem if they just give me the dead body of my son. If he’s alive they have to let me see him, and if he’s dead they have to bring me his body.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross says in its report that the coalition forces have failed to set up a system families of captives could use, creating a situation the report calls “missing in custody.” It says the reluctance of U.S. troops to give information is creating increasing rage among Iraqis against occupation forces.
“We know their people and we know what they are thinking,” says Abu Tayiff. His sister’s son has been behind bars for three months. No one has been allowed a visit. “We know the best way to deal with them is through the resistance.”