Some 15,000 in custody may be in limbo when UN rules that govern Iraq lapse in December.
The number of detainees the US military is holding in Iraq will probably exceed 15,000 by year's end – another factor America's next president must weigh when considering how much to downscale the US role in the country.
Last year, during the height of the "surge" of US troops, the United States held as many as 26,000 suspected insurgents. As security improved, commanders had hoped to whittle down the number of detainees, most of them Sunni, by reintegrating only the least dangerous individuals back into Iraqi society and leaving Iraq with a smaller group to manage. But the detainee population remains large, testing the resolve of Iraq's Shiite-led government to prepare to manage the detainees on its own by committing to fair treatment and due process.
The US is cajoling the Nouri al-Maliki government to step up efforts to build the legal and political capacity to resolve detainee cases once it assumes responsibility for them, presumably by next year. But progress has been slow with the negotiation-savvy Iraqis.
"We need to get these people moving through, and there is a hold-up in the process," says a senior uniformed official familiar with the issue. "There is a challenge to work through here."
All of this is critical because the UN Security Council resolution governing Iraq and the US military's presence there expires at the end of December. By that time, the US must complete so-called status of forces agreements that allow the American force to remain in Iraq. Whether the Iraqi government is prepared to take custody of the detainee population is a key question, driving concerns over its large size.