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Veterans of US Prisons in Iraq in No Mood for Reconciliation
Published on Monday, June 26, 2006 by Agence France Presse
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

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