For released Iraqis, little hope and plenty of suspicion

BAGHDAD — One day in early February, after a year and a half in various United States-run detention centers, detainee No.318360 was handed a letter that he was to give to his mother.

“We congratulate you on the release of your son,” read the letter, which was imprinted with the seal of the United States Department of Defense and written in Arabic. “His case has been concluded and we have made a decision that he needs to be released.”

With that, $25 in cash and a new set of civilian clothes, the detainee, Alaq Khleirallah, 27, was back out onto the streets of Baghdad. He is one of roughly 90,000 detainees who have been released from United States detention centers in the past six years, a process that will end sometime next year, when the last center is to be transferred to Iraqi control. Almost 10,000 detainees remain in United States custody.

They have received a grim welcome. Many return to families crippled by debt from months without a breadwinner. Insurgents see them as potential recruits — or American agents. Old friends, neighbors and even relatives refuse to greet them in public, suspicious of their backgrounds or worried that a few minutes of socializing could mean guilt by association when the authorities, as Iraqi officials often intimate, come to round them back up.

All of these factors are aggravated when the men can find no legitimate work, because of mistrust and a brutal job market. In a town where there are other, bloodier ways to earn cash, this makes for a dangerous brew.

“It’s just like Jean Valjean,” said Abdulhassan Jabr, who read “Les Miserables” during his 15 months in Camp Bucca, the largest United States-run detention center in Iraq. “An innocent guy is thrown in prison, he loses his job, his family goes hungry, and they refuse him a job when he gets out. Of course he’s going to go the wrong way.”

Jabr now works in a rehabilitation center in Sadr City that was set up by United States officials and a local sheik with money from the United States Agency for International Development. The center offers trade classes and counseling sessions.

Several of those at the center said they attended only on the possibility that microgrants would be handed out at the end. The course ended in May, and former detainees who were reached recently said they still had not received any money. Skills are useless without jobs, they said, and families are growing impatient.

Khleirallah, who is supporting a wife and four children, was a policeman when he and three brothers were arrested in 2007, not long after his father and two other brothers were killed by the Mahdi Army, the militia of the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Khleirallah’s old job was not waiting when he got out. He and many other detainees said policemen told them that they were forbidden by law from getting jobs in the security forces for 18 months after their release, but that the waiting period could be circumvented with a large bribe. Khleirallah said he could not afford that on top of his already considerable debt.

“I realized that this is my life,” he said. “I’m going to avoid the world.”

According to several senior Iraqi justice officials, no such rule exists.

Sitting in a freshly painted building that he hopes to turn into a rehabilitation center, Asaad Maki Gannaoui, a Shiite and a member of a local Awakening security force in the Jamila neighborhood, said it was only a matter of months before released detainees turned to the militias for work.

“He’s an engineer and can’t get a job anywhere,” Gannaoui said, pointing at one of the four men in the room with him, who all were nodding. “It’s like they’re ordering them to go and do bad things.”

Though Iraqi officials frequently blame released detainees for attacks, that is more perception than reality, said Brigadier General David E. Quantock, commanding general for Task Force 134, the United States unit that oversees the detention system in Iraq. Verifiable statistics about recidivism are unknown, in part because the growing Iraqi prison system has no central database. But of the 9,286 people detained by the Americans in 2008, less than 2 percent had been previously in United States custody.

In the early years of the war, many detainees were simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, Quantock said in June. By mid-2007, it was much more likely that a given detainee had been at least a low-level threat — for example, someone paid to stand guard for insurgents.

Though several high-profile detainees with ties to Shiite militant groups have been set free recently, as gestures of reconciliation, most of those who have been released fall into the low-threat category, Quantock said. Many of them had gotten involved with militias simply because there were few other options at the time of their arrest. But the dwindling of the insurgency does not mean that peaceful opportunities abound.

In 2005, Iesa Muayad al-Khayat saw his father, who worked for an American company, shot dead in front of his house. The family moved out of Adhamiya, a neighborhood that was becoming overrun with Sunni insurgents, and his mother remarried. Khayat, who was 17, stayed behind to prevent the family home from falling into the wrong hands.

Facing daily threats, he tried to hold onto his home any way he knew how. One afternoon, a man in the neighborhood with bad connections asked Khayat for a $70 loan. When United States troops raided Khayat’s house in early 2007, they found evidence of the loan and took him in.

“To tell the truth, I am so angry,” he said quietly. “I faced this problem wrongly.”

In jail, Khayat was accused of being a spy and was occasionally beaten by other detainees for his ability to speak English. During his 11 months in detention, he received just one letter from the outside. It was from his mother, informing him that the family was leaving for America.

In March 2008, Khayat returned to his neighborhood alone and found that his house had been thoroughly looted. The streets were much safer — in part because of the roundups that he had been caught up in. Still, neighbors told him that he was lucky to have been in prison. People he knew had been killed while he was away.

Khayat was told that one of his father’s killers had emigrated to Sweden, but no one could say what had become of the others, nor of those who had threatened Khayat in the months before his arrest. Now that he was out, and on his own, he realized that he was still a marked man.

Since then, Khayat has moved in with a relative in another part of town. An attempt to get a job as an interpreter with the Americans failed. After almost a year without a job, he found work with a British television production company, and he is waiting, in hope of a United States visa, to get out of Iraq.ned by the Americans in 2008, less than 2 percent had been previously in United States custody.In the early years of the war, many detainees were simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, Quantock said in June. By mid-2007, it was much more likely that a given detainee had been at least a low-level threat — for example, someone paid to stand guard for insurgents.Though several high-profile detainees with ties to Shiite militant groups have been set free recently, as gestures of reconciliation, most of those who have been released fall into the low-threat category, Quantock said. Many of them had gotten involved with militias simply because there were few other options at the time of their arrest. But the dwindling of the insurgency does not mean that peaceful opportunities abound.In 2005, Iesa Muayad al-Khayat saw his father, who worked for an American company, shot dead in front of his house. The family moved out of Adhamiya, a neighborhood that was becoming overrun with Sunni insurgents, and his mother remarried. Khayat, who was 17, stayed behind to prevent the family home from falling into the wrong hands.Facing daily threats, he tried to hold onto his home any way he knew how. One afternoon, a man in the neighborhood with bad connections asked Khayat for a $70 loan. When United States troops raided Khayat’s house in early 2007, they found evidence of the loan and took him in.”To tell the truth, I am so angry,” he said quietly. “I faced this problem wrongly.”In jail, Khayat was accused of being a spy and was occasionally beaten by other detainees for his ability to speak English. During his 11 months in detention, he received just one letter from the outside. It was from his mother, informing him that the family was leaving for America.In March 2008, Khayat returned to his neighborhood alone and found that his house had been thoroughly looted. The streets were much safer — in part because of the roundups that he had been caught up in. Still, neighbors told him that he was lucky to have been in prison. People he knew had been killed while he was away.Khayat was told that one of his father’s killers had emigrated to Sweden, but no one could say what had become of the others, nor of those who had threatened Khayat in the months before his arrest. Now that he was out, and on his own, he realized that he was still a marked man.Since then, Khayat has moved in with a relative in another part of town. An attempt to get a job as an interpreter with the Americans failed. After almost a year without a job, he found work with a British television production company, and he is waiting, in hope of a United States visa, to get out of Iraq.

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