Veterans of US Prisons in Iraq in No Mood for Reconciliation

by Sam Dagher

The lock opens and a heavyset man sporting a
black knitted skullcap similar to that worn by
the slain Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, leaves a cage at Abu Ghraib prison.

Saad al-Hayali, 47, was one of 500 detainees at
US and Iraqi-run facilities in Iraq released at a
ceremony on Friday, as part of a bid by Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki to promote reconciliation
and national dialogue among the country's feuding factions.

Maliki, who announced the initiative June 6, was
to disclose details of his plan on Sunday.

But a conversation with Hayali and several others
-- all Sunni Arabs locked up on suspicion of ties
to insurgents -- quickly suggests they are not willing to forgive and forget.

Some may be even more determined after their
prison time to take up arms against US and Iraqi forces.

"I heard about reconciliation and I reject it
completely because something built on shaky
foundations will not stand up," Hayali said bluntly.

More than 2,100 detainees have been set free
since June 6, said the spokesman of US detainee
operations in Iraq, Lieutenant Colonel Keir-Kevin
Curry. He said a total of 2,500 detainees should
be released by the end of this month.

Hayali, a former civil engineer, said
reconciliation would be meaningless. He said he
does not recognise the legitimacy of the Maliki
government, which began a full four-year term in
April following elections in December, nor does
he recognise the country's new constitution passed last year.

His objection is that both are based on a US
blueprint for sovereignty drafted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Hayali said he was arrested with his two sons and
brother 26 months ago on charges of being
"terrorists" and inciting violence in the town
Tarmia, a well-known insurgent hotspot north of Baghdad.

"I did not have a chance to carry a weapon, but I
was using words to reject occupation," he said.

His sons, aged 17 and 24, were let go a few days
later but he and his brother were held at the
infamous US-run Abu Ghraib, scene of a major
prisoner abuse scandal in 2004. His brother was released a few months ago.

"The solution to all our problems is God's book.
This is the constitution," Hayali said as he held
up a large copy of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

"I will sacrifice myself to make this happen; our
blood must spill for this book."

Hayali embodies the disillusionment of the
once-privileged Sunni Arab minority after the fall of Saddam Hussein's
regime.

Many have refused to accept that the reins of
power are now in the hands of the majority
Shiites, repressed for years under the previous regime.

Some continue to fuel a bloody insurgency that
has branched out into a struggle pitting members
of the two Muslim sects against one another.

"Reconciliation can happen if Iraqis are left
alone. We are all brothers," said Sabir Muslih,
36, who was arrested in October by Iraqi forces
and handed to US troops on suspicion of being involved in a roadside bombing.

"But the problem is foreign countries like Iran.
It is another Tehran here now. Iranians
pretending to be part of the government
slaughtered 18 of my cousins," he added,
referring to Shiite militia death squads.

Many of Iraq's new leaders maintain very close
ties with Shiite Iran, the arch foe of Saddam's ousted regime.

A sectarian war and the establishment of an
Islamic state were the purported aims of
Jordanian-born Zarqawi before his death in a US air strike on June 7.

Zarqawi's alleged right-hand man, an Iraqi Sunni
Arab by the name of Mansur al-Mashhadani, was
also killed by US forces a week ago. The military
said he had been imprisoned for a few months in
2004 and was then released after deemed unthreatening.

"Many people inside embraced God for real. We
used to talk about jihad, and the good news is
that it is running in everybody's veins now," Hayali said.

"In our prayers we used to keep repeating: God
help us implement your law and raise your word high."

Asked if there was concern that Abu Ghraib and
other detention facilities in Iraq were becoming
breeding grounds for militants, Curry said: "One
of the things in a democratic process is freedom
of religion and we are here to support this."

He said that those deemed to be a bad influence
on fellow detainees are usually segregated and
that all of those released so far have gone
through a careful vetting process by a special US-Iraqi board.

"These detainees have denounced violence and
pledged to be good citizens of Iraq," Curry said,
adding that none have been found guilty of
bombings, murder, torture or kidnapping.

He said only 5.6 percent of those released from
US-run prisons since January 2005 have been recaptured.

"I am innocent, someone conspired on me!"
screamed an old man in traditional dress from
behind a cage at Abu Ghraib before his release.

"Yes you are right and this applies to 90 percent
of you," Abed Mutlaq al-Juburi, a Sunni Arab MP from northern Iraq, shot
back.

Juburi stood on a shaded, elevated wooden plank
under the blazing sun, addressing hundreds of
detainees, mostly from areas around Baghdad and
the western city of Ramadi, on the other side of a fence.

Many held copies of the Koran against their chests.

"Some politicians are trying to draw a wedge
between us, but we should not be divided," he
told the men. "Be Sunni, Shiite, Kurd or whatever
you want, but we must all live under one tent called Iraq."

After the gate to the cage was opened by a US
soldier, the men came out one by one to shake
Juburi's hand before boarding big buses taking them home.

Later Juburi insisted in an interview that
prisoner releases will not work unless they are
combined with a formal apology and compensation
to those wrongly detained, along with job opportunities.

"A hungry person will do anything and the jobless
can easily be lured to commit crimes," he said.

On Friday, a leading Shiite cleric Sadreddin
al-Kubanji, said in his weekly sermon that Maliki
was making "a strategic error" by releasing "terrorists and criminals."

"If you are a young pious Sunni Arab you are a
'terrorist'. I do not want to be involved in
politics or any reconciliation," said Bakr
Abedlkarim, 22, from Baghdad's Adhamiya district.

Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse