U.S. prisons in Iraq will expand to hold 16,000

By wire services
Published June 28, 2005

BAGHDAD - The U.S. military said Monday that it plans to expand its prisons across Iraq to hold as many as 16,000 detainees, as the relentless insurgency shows no sign of letup one year after the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi authorities.

The plans were announced on a day three U.S. Army soldiers were killed: two pilots whose helicopter crashed north of Baghdad and a soldier who was shot in the capital. At least four Iraqis died in a car bomb attack in the capital.

The AH-64 crashed in Mishahda, 20 miles north of the capital, and witness Mohammed Naji told Associated Press Television News he saw two helicopters flying toward Mishahda when "a rocket hit one of them and destroyed it completely in the air."

Iraqi and U.S. officials say feelings of disenfranchisement among the Sunni Arabs, who ruled Iraq for decades, may be fueling the insurgency. The violence has cut deeply into Iraqi society, with about 1,200 Iraqis and more than 75 U.S. soldiers killed in the last two months.

Top U.S. military officials are increasingly emphasizing political solutions rather than military ones to Iraq's insurgency, a shift acknowledging the difficulty they and the Iraqi government face in stopping the violence.

In a Pentagon briefing on Monday, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey Jr., confirmed that U.S. and Iraqi officials had been meeting with Sunni leaders in Iraq in hopes of defusing the insurgency.

"They're discussions primarily aimed at bringing these Sunni leaders and the people they represent into the political process," he said at a briefing with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Also, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric appeared to offer a major concession to the Sunni Arab minority on Monday when he indicated that he would support changes in the voting system that would probably give Sunnis more seats in the future Parliament.

In a meeting with a group of Sunni and Shiite leaders, the cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, outlined a proposal that would scrap the system used in the January election, according to a secular Shiite political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Yasseri, who was at the meeting. The election had a huge turnout by Shiites and Kurds but was mostly boycotted by Sunni Arabs.

Such a change would need to be written into Iraq's constitution, which parliamentarians are drafting for an Aug. 15 deadline.

Under the proposal, voters in national elections would select leaders from each of the 19 provinces instead of choosing from a single countrywide list, as they did in January. The new system would essentially set aside a number of seats for Sunnis roughly proportionate to their numbers in the population, ensuring that no matter how low the Sunni turnout, they would be guaranteed seats.

Sunni Arabs welcomed news of the suggestion.

"This should have been done from the beginning," said Saleh Mutlak, a member of the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni Arab political group that has pressed for a more active role in politics. "That election was wrong."

Meanwhile, the burgeoning prison population has forced the U.S. military to begin renovations, and work has also begun on restoring an old Iraqi military barracks near Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.

The prison population at three military complexes throughout the country - Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper - has nearly doubled from 5,435 in June 2004 to 10,002 now, said Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a spokesman for detainee operations in Iraq. Some 400 non-Iraqis are among the inmates, according to the military.

Renovations should be done by February, Rudisill said.

On Monday, the U.S. military raised the death toll in last week's Fallujah attack to six, announcing that three women service members were killed in the ambush on an American convoy.

--Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.