For years, extremist Iraqi detainees in U.S. custody held self-styled Islamic courts and tortured or killed inmates who refused to join them, military officials said, disclosing new details about the use of American prisons to recruit for the insurgency.
The problem became the main catalyst for a decision to separate moderate detainees from the extremists, part of a broader reform package aimed at correcting widespread U.S. prison abuses that sparked international criticism.
"We were having people who weren't insurgents who were being forced to be insurgents because of the power of these courts, the power of al-Qaida and other extremist groups," said Lt. Col. Kenneth Plowman, a spokesman for Task Force 134, which operates coalition detention facilities in Iraq.
He told The Associated Press Friday that the jailhouse Sharia courts were formed, despite the presence of U.S guards, to enforce an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. They were then used to convict moderate inmates, who were then tortured or killed, he said.
In comments published in the Sierra Vista Herald in Arizona, Brig. Gen. Rodney L. Johnson, commander of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, put the number of detainees tried by the courts in the double-digits. Neither he nor Plowman would give specific numbers.
The courts were eradicated and none has been detected in six months although some gang-related issues persist, Plowman said.
"We have a detainee population of about 21,000. You're gonna have extremists who will find a way to communicate and to form these kind of organizations," he added.
But he said guards had stepped up to block efforts to form new courts.
The classification of detainees into moderate and extremist groups was part of sweeping reforms launched by the former commander of detainee operations, Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, in a bid to overcome a series of scandals over the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.
It also was in line with a new counterinsurgency strategy by the Americans that focused on isolating the general population from the militants to stem support for the fighting.
"The problem's been apparent and when Stone took command that was one of his first initiatives — to separate out the detainees into categories like moderate, extremists etc. in order to resolve this issue," Plowman said. "There hasn't been any real Sharia court for six months or so."
Allegations of abuse at U.S. prisons escalated in 2004 with the release of pictures of grinning U.S. soldiers posing with detainees at the Abu Ghraib facility west of Baghdad. Some were naked, being held on leashes or in painful and sexually humiliating positions.
That prison has since been closed, and 11 U.S. soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws. Five others were disciplined in the scandal.
Militant breeding grounds
Stone expressed regret over the old U.S. policies during a June 1 news conference, shortly before relinquishing command to Rear Adm. Garland Wright.
"By not emphasizing population protection and the exemplary treatment of detainees, our facilities became breeding grounds for extremist recruitment. As a result, we changed many of our practices," he said.
Reforms also included educational and vocational programs in a bid to rehabilitate less dangerous prisoners, as well as increased releases under amnesty programs.
The overall number of detainees has fallen from a peak of 26,000 last summer to just over 21,000, according to officials.
Plowman said the military is using Muslim clerics and prison board members to determine to which category they should be assigned.
The problem was concentrated at Camp Bucca — a facility in southern Iraq that holds 18,000 of the inmates, including some of the most dangerous — and the courts were usually led by al-Qaida in Iraq, Plowman said.
He said the problem had been happening since U.S. detainee operations began in 2004.