Sheik Beaten, Blinded, Tasered, Released Into the ‘New Iraq’

Sixteen months ago, I published a special investigative report on a deadly U.S. military raid. On May 2, 2004, American soldiers raided a Human Rights Office in the ancient city of Babylon while a peaceful meeting was in process.  American forces shot two sheiks in the head and arrested the man who was addressing the crowd. He’d been held in prison since then, but two weeks ago he was released.

The Babylon Human Rights Organization was well known to the U.S. Government. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had praised it during a visit just a few months before.  But as sentiment against the occupation spread, the American government changed their minds about the association. During the 2004 raid, the American military arrested Sayyed Adnan Onaibi, a well respected preacher who headed the office of cleric Muqtada Sadr in Hilla.

"When they detained me they accused me of leading attacks on the U.S. military and being a leader of the Mehdi Army," the imam explained from his phone in Hilla this week. "Then they sent me a paper saying I was being held by the C.I.A. Then it turned out I was innocent and so they released me."

Initially, he was held at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. Then, he was transferred to Camp Bucca prison in Southern Iraq. Until recently, inmates at Camp Bucca were warehoused in tents.

Over the phone, Onaibi seems distant, reluctant to relate his experiences as a prisoner of the Anglo-American occupation. During his time in custody, Onabi says, American soldiers zapped his head with a taser, and broke many of his ribs. He can no longer see out of one of his eyes. Such actions were crushing to Onaibi’s spirit. During Saddam’s time, he was an outspoken critic of the regime. Now, he says, the situation is getting worse and worse.

Onaibi was set free amidst a mass release of more than 1,000 "security detainees" at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca August 27th..

A Pentagon statement on the mass release read, in part: “This major release, the largest to date, marks a significant event in Iraq’s progress toward democratic governance and the rule of law, demonstrating the involvement of Iraq’s government in the effort to provide both security and justice for all Iraqis.

The detainees who were released were not convicted of violent crimes, the statement said, “and all have admitted their crimes, renounced violence and pledged to be good citizens of a democratic Iraq.”

Like Onaibi, the 1,000 prisoners released received a secret military trial overseen with six U.S. and six Iraqi soldiers sitting as judges. None of the detainees had been able to see a lawyer and they were rarely able to see their families.

Onaibi says the tactics of the occupation border on surreal.

"A day before they released us, they brought us all into a big hall and gave us an all-day lecture about why they would not allow us to travel outside the country for six months," he says. "They explained that we should spend some time in the new Iraq. That the new Iraq is wonderful and that we should see the nice changes."

Those incarcerated under American occupation are also forbidden from holding jobs for six months after their release.

And despite this month’s mass prisoner release, the Iraqi prison population continues to grow. After the Abu Ghraib prison photos were first released last April, President George W. Bush pledged to demolish the facility, but in June this year the Pentagon reversed course.

"The U.S. recently expanded the size of Abu Ghraib so they can take in more prisoners," explains Greg Rolands, a Canadian member of Christain Peacemaker Team, which monitors conditions in Iraqi prisons.

"The U.S. is also building another prison in Northern Iraq so they can hold more prisoners. By the end of this year, the U.S. will be able to hold 16,000," he adds.

The new prison is being built by Los Angeles-based Parson’s Corporation.

"In my opinion, you don’t build new prisons if you plan on just handing them all over to the Iraqis," Rolands says. "You build a new prison if you plan on staying a long time and arresting many Iraqis in big house raids and big sweeps."

The elected Iraqi Government has other ideas, however. The National Assembly’s 18-member National Sovereignty Committee Thursday, said the only way Iraq could achieve sovereignty was for American forces to leave. The report called for setting a timetable for the troops to go home and referred to them as “occupation forces," a first for the Iraqi Government.

“It’s normal to ask for our full sovereignty," the chair of the committee, Jawad al-Malikit told Knight-Ridder newspapers.

"It should have happened right after the elections because the government is legal."