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Her job: Lock up Iraq's bad guys

Army Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the lone female commander in Iraq, runs the prison system that once was an apparatus of terror.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published December 14, 2003

BAGHDAD - A few weeks ago, Janis Karpinski was in the middle of a briefing when a man suddenly reached out and grabbed her.

Crass? No, just a nervous soldier trying to protect the commanding officer as an Iraqi mortar exploded a few dozen yards away.

"A mortar will get your attention real fast," Karpinski says, "and it can be an indication of other things to come."

Such are the daily distractions for Karpinski, a brigadier general and the only female U.S. commander in Iraq. Since June, the 50-year-old Karpinski has been in charge of the country's prison system, including the once-infamous Abu Ghraib, where Saddam Hussein's political opponents were tortured and hanged.

Karpinski is also responsible for 3,400 National Guard and Army reservists deployed from the Persian Gulf to the northern city of Mosul. Among them is a military police unit from St. Petersburg that helps guard Abu Ghraib, renamed Baghdad Central and now housing hundreds of garden-variety criminals as well as those accused of violence against coalition troops.

"The threat level has increased all through the country," Karpinski says. "They're getting smarter, they're more capable of these little insurgencies and attacks."

Given the constant threat of danger, Karpinski is quick to admit that "nobody wants to stay in Iraq a day longer than he has to." But soldiers credit her for making their tours here a little more palatable.

"She's really caring," says Sgt. 1st Class Philip J. May of Pinellas Park. "She doesn't just talk the talk, she walks the walk."

So far, Karpinski has lost 15 people under her command to combat-related incidents, including a father killed by a mortar before he got to see his 2-month-old baby. She sends personal letters to the families and tries to attend all memorial services in Iraq.

Karpinski also does what she can to make life easier for troops on a day-to-day basis.

"I love my soldiers," she says. "When I ask if there's a problem or I hear of a problem, I make every effort to resolve it, and if I can't, I tell them why I can't or why the system can't. There's no lip service."

Karpinski understands the trials of separation. She has no children, but her husband of 29 years, a lieutenant colonel, works with the U.S. Embassy in the small Arab nation of Oman. Among the few times she has seen him in recent months was last summer when he presented her with flowers as she assumed command of the 800th Military Police Brigade.

Like her colleagues, Karpinski lives in desert camouflage, Kevlar vest and combat boots. Her blond hair is braided and coiled in a tight bun; her ice blue eyes, devoid of makeup, fix listeners with a friendly, if unflinching gaze.

The brigade is based near Baghdad International Airport in what used to be Hussein's private sports preserve. The setting is almost paradisiacal with small palaces surrounding a man-made lake.

"Everyone assigned here carries on the tradition of fishing," Karpinski notes, leading the way across a narrow footbridge as the setting sun casts a golden light over palms and rushes. "It's beautiful, but in the summer it's every bit as hot as elsewhere - 140 degrees."

Karpinski's operations center is in a former "love nest" of one of Hussein's sons. Instead of lurid murals, the walls are now covered with giant maps of Baghdad Central Correctional Facility and the Middle East. The room used to be bright and sunny; after the mortar attacks, all the windows were boarded with plywood.

From here, Karpinski oversees 15 prisons and detention facilities throughout southern and central Iraq. During Hussein's day, it was not a corrections system but one of "intimidation and torture," she says.

At Abu Ghraib, the most notorious prison, 150 inmates were crammed into cells designed for 24. The torture chamber was next to the hanging chamber, whose clanging iron trap doors were a vivid reminder of the fate awaiting those who refused to pledge loyalty to the regime.

In the fall of 2002, Hussein unexpectedly released thousands of rapists, murderers and other criminals for reasons still not totally clear. Left virtually unoccupied, the prisons were plundered after the war.

"Looters had a field day. They stole all the doors, the windows and in some locations, they took the bricks out of the walls and the tile off the floor. They even pulled out the wiring. The prisons were in absolute disrepair when we came into Iraq."

Baghdad Central and other prisons are undergoing extensive renovation, including the addition of ceiling fans, toilets and showers. Whereas detainees used to cry at the very thought of Abu Ghraib, for many the "living conditions now are better in prison than at home," Karpinski says. "At one point we were concerned they wouldn't want to leave."

About 9,000 of the men, women and juveniles in custody throughout Iraq are "civilian prisoners" charged with theft and other common crimes. In all but the most serious cases, they are released within a few weeks or months.

Other prisoners, said to number a few thousand Iraqis and foreigners, are "security detainees" suspected of crimes against the coalition. Within 72 hours, they are informed of the charges against them. They also are entitled to a review by a coalition military committee, with followup reviews every six months.

"It's really a different situation from Guantanamo," says Karpinski, referring to the U.S. military base on Cuba where hundreds of terrorist suspects have been held for more than two years without charge.

There is a third, even more closely guarded group of inmates - top officials of Hussein's regime, including Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. They are housed together under "appropriate arrangements;" Karpinski won't say more about them.

At least once every three months, Karpinski tries to visit each prison, although she scaled back a bit as attacks against the coalition increased.

"Make no mistake, I have the same concern for personal safety as everybody else, but I put a lot of other people at risk - my driver, my team. . . . But we can't put soldiers out there and say it's too dangerous to come see you."

At most prisons, Iraqi guards now work side by side with coalition troops. There have been problems; some Iraqis failed to show up for work while others have been canned for taking bribes. One was fired for raping female inmates. It will be three to five years, Karpinski predicts, before Iraqis can completely take over the prison systems.

"A lot of time the question is, "How do you feel about being in command of the unit in possibly the most important mission in Iraq?' I say, "A lot of the time I feel tired.' "

Yet even as a 5-year-old, Karpinski wanted to be a soldier.

One summer, she lined up her dolls in the back yard of her Rahway, N.J., home and wrote, "A-OK-U.S. Army" on them. Neighbors were startled to see her sitting on the sill of her second-floor bedroom window; Karpinski was imagining what it would be like to jump out of an airplane.

"I think what attracted me originally was that the Army offered the opportunities to do all the exciting things I could never do as a school teacher or in any other capacity."

Over a quarter-century career, Karpinski has made more than 100 parachute jumps, won a Bronze Star and served in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. In 1987, she moved from the regular Army to the Reserves, but continued working in intelligence and MP positions in the United States and the Mideast.

Karpinski notes, with pride, that female soldiers under her command do the same kind of work as men. "Over the last 10 years, (the Army) has become an example of how men and women of every religion and ethnic background are offered the same opportunities. Occasionally the good old boy network is in place, but it used to be 90 percent of the time. Now it's 10 percent of the time."

But Karpinski knows many people still regard female soldiers as a different breed, as shown by the attention to the story of Pvt. Jessica Lynch.

"It did seem like a lot of hype, but she was probably the only female prisoner of war who was injured and dramatically rescued. . . . I don't think she wanted to be singled out other than as an example of a young soldier" - Karpinski stresses the word soldier - "caught in an unlikely scenario and rescued."

In her civilian life, Karpinski is a consultant who runs grueling executive training programs for those hoping to scale the corporate ladder. The courses, which put participants under various kinds of stress, are "not a lot of fun . . . but are a true test of the toughness of an individual's mettle."

An avid golfer, Karpinski and her husband, George, make their home on the resort island of Hilton Head, S.C. When a fire heavily damaged the house in 2001, he arrived from the Mideast two weeks later - after the cleanup was almost finished, she says with spousal bemusement.

Now, the couple keeps in touch by e-mail and satellite phone. In her limited free time, Karpinski reads. She just finished Leadership by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"No matter how you slice it, it's all about leadership. . . . If anyone tells you they're not afraid, they're lying. Everybody is afraid, everybody is concerned, but they have confidence in their training and the commanders reinforce that."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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