updated 3/8/2004 5:01:04 PM ET 2004-03-08T22:01:04

An American commander unveiled a plan Monday aimed at defusing tension over Iraqis held in U.S. military custody, which tribal leaders in Saddam Hussein’s hometown say is the leading cause of anti-American animosity.

Between 500 and 900 Iraqi males from Tikrit and surrounding areas are said to be in U.S. military detention facilities and larger Iraqi jails in Umm Qasr and Abu Ghraib. They were rounded up, blindfolded and taken away by American soldiers during raids on suspicion of attacking coalition forces.

In many cases, innocent Iraqis have been arrested in such sweeps, but getting them out of jail has been difficult: No formal system exists to easily track them down, verify their stories and hear representations by family members wanting them returned home.

With many Iraqis believing coalition forces are wrongly holding their loved ones, tribal leaders complain that tensions are reaching boiling point in their communities.

“We have no problems with the Americans at all, except for what is happening to our people sitting in prisons,” Sheik Hammadi al-Kassami, a Tikrit tribal leader, told The Associated Press.

‘The biggest problem facing the Americans here’
“There are innocent men in jail with families, crying babies being left alone in their homes,” he added. “Solving this situation is the biggest problem facing the Americans here.”

Lt. Col. Steve Russell, commander of the Tikrit-based 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, outlined the new system to al-Kassami and about 20 other tribal leaders from this city and surrounding areas. It aims to speed up attempts by Iraqis to find detained family members and possibly secure their release.

Russell told the gathering at Tikrit’s governor’s office that he understands the detainee issue is “emotional” but that a procedure must be established to assist in identifying and freeing those wrongly in custody.

“This has been a concern since we entered Tikrit” nearly a year ago, Russell told AP. “Families have been rightfully concerned about knowing where their loved ones are, what they have been accused of and if they are alive.”

He, however, stressed that detainees suspected of attacking American soldiers or aiding anti-coalition activities would not be freed until being dealt with by Iraq’s legal system.

Official path of action
Until now, people seeking detained relatives would usually approach the gates of military bases or contact local leaders and urge them to take up their cases with American forces.

Instead, Russell’s plan lays out an official path of action:

Relatives report a capture the president of the recently formed provincial sheik council, a U.S.-created advisory body of tribal leaders who work closely with the regional government.

The council president contacts tribal leaders responsible for the area where the detained person lives to learn if he has been involved in anti-coalition activities.

The sheik council seeks details or the release of the detainee by applying to American forces, the Coalition Provisional Authority, regional governor and, if they are in the area, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Iraqi equivalent, the Red Crescent.

At that point, authorities will decide whether there is just cause to detain the person.

“We need some system to get this situation resolved, because so many of the detained are innocent,” said Sheik Naji Hussein al-Jbouri, the sheik council’s inaugural president.

He added, however, that the system would slow down the release of innocent detainees “because we have to deal with so many groups.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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