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In Iraq's prisons, a culture of abuse

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Lt. Col. Shaun Reed, commander of a Baquba-based US infantry unit, often runs up against that culture. He says it's hard to change prison workers accustomed to brutality. "What I consider humane treatment of prisoners, is not what they would consider humane treatment," says Reed, whose work with Iraqi security forces has exposed him to Iraqi prison conditions. "If you ask Iraqis what they think – it's completely different."

The issue has taken on new urgency as the US dials back its presence in Iraq, accelerating the release and transfer of Iraqi prisoners in its custody. Most of the prisoners deemed unlikely to reoffend have been released already, which means a higher proportion of the 8,947 remaining as of early September are likely to go to jail, according to Capt. Brad Kimberly, a US media relations officer.

In the first nine months of this year, more than 5,000 detainees were released, with nearly 1,200 transferred to Iraqi custody, according to Kimberly and other US officers interviewed for this article. At the current release rate of 750 per month, an additional 1,400 detainees are expected to go to Iraqi jails before the US transfer is completed – probably in August 2010.

After the exposure of abuses at Abu Ghraib, American officers are eager to point out measures to ensure proper treatment of Iraqi prisoners.

But now it is essential that they take equal care to prevent the transfer of prisoners to a system where there is a substantial risk of torture or mistreatment – an action that violates international law, says HRW researcher Samer Muscati, who travels often to the region.

"In our research over the last couple of years ... we heard credible allegations of torture and mistreatment during initial detention by Iraqi forces," wrote Mr. Muscati in an e-mail. "So it will be incumbent on the US to verify conditions in Iraqi facilities that receive such transfers through regular inspections of those facilities by impartial and independent observers."

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