From the Los Angeles Times
A 'battlefield of the mind' in Iraq
Using the Koran as a tool, a new strategy is
aimed at turning suspected insurgents into model citizens.
By Alexandra Zavis
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 16, 2007
BAGHDAD — The men crouched on the floor of the carpeted tent listen
intently to a cleric seated on a wooden bench in front of them, some
leaning forward so as not to miss a single word.
Be patient, he tells them. Follow the prophet's example. Forgive those
who wronged you. Hands shoot up, and the round-faced imam in beige
slacks and sneakers begins to take their questions.
Islamic teachings have been transmitted at such gatherings for
centuries. But this is no religious madrasa.
The tent is surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire, soldiers
stand at its entrance and the students wear the yellow overalls of
detainees at U.S. facilities.
The "enlightenment" class that took place one recent morning at Camp
Cropper, near Baghdad's international airport, is part of a radical
overhaul of a detention system still tainted by the abuse scandal at
the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.
"The travesty, the failure in leadership that led to Abu Ghraib can
never be allowed again," Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone said in a
recent interview. "The recruiting value of something like that to the
extremists is so meaningful; it's a war-fighting imperative that it
never be allowed to happen."
Since May, when he took charge of U.S. detention operations in Iraq,
Stone has opened internment facilities to greater outside scrutiny and
given inmates a chance to discuss their cases with military authorities.
He also has introduced a battery of programs aimed at turning suspected
insurgents into model citizens. Teachers, clerics, psychologists and
other specialists use the Koran to moderate inmates' views, and provide
counseling and basic education to rehabilitate the mostly poor,
uneducated detainees, some of whom have been exposed to extremist
Stone said he aimed to overturn the conventional notion of detention as
"warehousing" for insurgents and to counter the influence of militants
who have used a combination of intimidation and persuasion to turn U.S.
detention facilities into incubators of violence.
"It is the battlefield of the mind," Stone said.
The task has taken on new urgency as the number of detainees held by
U.S. forces in Iraq has soared to unprecedented levels. About 25,000
people are held at Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca, near Basra, the two
primary U.S. facilities in Iraq.Before the security crackdown that
began in February, the two centers held 15,500 detainees.
As long as they are deemed a "security threat," adults can be held
indefinitely. Many wait years before being tried or cleared, leaving
them susceptible to recruitment by extremists housed with them. Iraqi
law requires youths to be released within 12 months.
A U.S. military panel reviews detainee cases at least every six months.
Until recently, it did so without allowing detainees to be present, and
it still does not allow them to have legal representation. Now that
they are allowed to discuss their cases in person, about 35% are
released after first review, up from about 8% under the previous rules,
In a bid to restore the credibility of the system, Stone has allowed
representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the
Iraqi government and military and other agencies to visit Cropper and
A Red Cross spokeswoman said that the agency made regular visits to the
two camps, but that it had not been allowed to see facilities where
detainees are interrogated before they are referred to Cropper or
Bucca. It is the organization's policy not to share its observations
about detention conditions with the news media.
The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq noted in a recent report that it
had not been granted access to any U.S. detention facilities. A Times
reporter observed classes at Cropper and at a nearby education facility
for juvenile detainees but was not permitted to speak with the inmates.
The idea of "turning" detainees has been a tenet of prison reform for
decades. During the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese persuaded more
than 100,000 Viet Cong fighters to defect by offering them amnesty,
cash, job training and homes, according to studies by Rand Corp., an
independent think tank in Santa Monica.
More recently, Saudi Arabia has been using teams of experts to engage
prisoners in intense religious discussions that mirror indoctrination
by extremists. Officials also offer graduates help finding a job, and
in some cases, a wife. Similar efforts have been made in Yemen and
Singapore. But until recently, there had been no comparable effort in
Iraq. Bruce Hoffman, who served as a counter-terrorism advisor for the
U.S. occupation authority in 2004, said this omission had been a
"Historically, in other conflicts, this has proven a critical means of
gaining strategic intelligence about the terrorists or insurgents and
their organization, their motivation, their mind-set, how they are
recruited . . . how organizational command and control is exercised,"
said Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
Other analysts say there isn't enough data to gauge the effectiveness
of such programs and that it is unrealistic to expect to convert the
most hardened extremists.
"You are going to get at least some margin of people who are
recidivist, people who conceal their true beliefs simply because they
want to get out of the camp," said Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense
Department official and a military expert at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies in Washington.
Stone said that none of the more than 1,000 detainees who had been
through his programs had been arrested again. But he acknowledged that
it was too soon to tell whether that would remain the case. He
estimated that 30% of the detainees may be impervious to the efforts of
the $254-million rehabilitation program.
His goal is to isolate these men while he goes after those who can be
persuaded. Most, he said, are poor, unemployed Sunni Arabs, with little
education, easily tempted by the $100 or $200 insurgents offer them to
plant a bomb.
Stone believes the military's best weapon in the rehabilitation effort
is the Koran, which contains numerous prohibitions against killing.
"I think it would be a surprise to most Americans to find out . . . the
detainees themselves do not seem to have deep understanding of the
Koran," Stone said. "They are more or less following what their local
mosque imam is telling them to do."
The imam who led the recent "enlightenment" class said many of his
students were shocked when he showed them passages forbidding the
killing of the innocent, even if they are not Muslims.
"If [a detainee] killed someone before now, after the program he will
think 1,000 times before killing again," he said. "But it will depend
on where he is released, because the conditions are very difficult
outside. There is too much violence."
The imam said he knew that violence well: He was forced to move his
family out of Baghdad after his mosque was destroyed by Shiite Muslim
militiamen. He lives at a military base, because his work for the
Americans could get him killed by extremists on either side of the
sectarian conflict. Like other Iraqis interviewed, he asked that his
name not be published.
In addition to attending the religious discussions, more than 7,000
detainees are also enrolled in Arabic, math, science, geography,
English and civics lessons through the eighth-grade level. Stone hopes
a basic education will give them the tools to read and understand the
Muslim holy book for themselves.
At the new education facility for juvenile inmates, detainees cleared
the ground for four soccer pitches. There are plans to build a brick
factory and a textile plant that will manufacture the uniforms they
Before they are released, detainees go before an Iraqi judge to swear
an oath on the Koran renouncing violence, sometimes with a family
member present to act as a legal guarantor.
Sunni Arab politicians, who have been among the most critical of
detention operations, praise the new programs. But some recently
released detainees were skeptical. They said most inmates were more
likely to listen to a fellow detainee than a cleric brought in by the
"The extremists have much more effective ways of converting prisoners,"
said one man, who spent five months at Bucca.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times