TIKRIT, Iraq -- An American commander unveiled a plan yesterday aimed at defusing tension over Iraqis held in US 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 US 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 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 the 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," said Sheik Hammadi al-Kassami, a Tikrit tribal leader.
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell, commander of the Tikrit-based Fourth Infantry Division's First Battalion, 22d Infantry Regiment, outlined the new system to 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.
Under Russell's plan:
Relatives report a capture to the president of the recently formed provincial sheik council, a US-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 whether he has been involved in anticoalition 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.