As the U.S. continues its slow reduction of forces from Iraq, it is also releasing thousands of Iraqi prisoners and transferring other detainees to Iraqi custody. The largest U.S. prison in Iraq, at Camp Bucca, closed this month, stirring fresh and painful memories for one Iraqi journalist who was detained there.
Camp Bucca, opened just after the U.S. invasion in March 2003, sits on more than 40 acres of desert sand near the head of the Persian Gulf, just north of the Kuwait border. At its peak, the prison housed more than 22,000 detainees in separate camps.
Ali Omar al-Mashhadani was one of them. A 40-year-old journalist, he recalls his detention at Bucca — and all of his memories — as negative.
"Each camp had different kind of prisoners, like extremists or ex-regime officials from the Baath Party," he recalls.
"We were isolated from everything. We didn't have a radio or anything. The Americans would sometimes bring us very bad news, like a Sunni guy killing a Shiite, or vice versa, to make the prisoners hate each other," he says.
After the U.S. invasion, Mashhadani worked as a cameraman for the BBC and Reuters, and as a stringer for NPR.
In the summer of 2005, he was detained without charges while photographing a clash between U.S. forces and insurgents in Haditha.
He was released after spending three months at Camp Bucca.
"We'd demonstrate inside because we heard about massacres or other bad news about the war. We'd throw apples, and they'd respond with gunfire or dogs," he recalls.
Over the course of the next six years, the U.S. military detained Mashhadani seven more times, essentially, he believes, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, while holding a camera near U.S. forces.
Like many other detainees, he has never been charged.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Quantock, who oversees the U.S. detention centers in Iraq, says that being a journalist does not give a person more rights than an ordinary citizen. He defends how the U.S. guards treated Iraqi prisoners.
"There were episodes here and there where a guard force did something they shouldn't have, but very low level. We take [allegations of abuse] very seriously. So a detainee may say he didn't like the way he was searched. If he makes an allegation, we investigate it, and it's substantiated or not substantiated," Quantock says.
Mashhadani says he suffered psychological abuse at Camp Bucca, where Shiites and Sunnis were knowingly housed together, and where prisoners were forced to stay in small, dark holding cells.
The rooms had many air conditioners, and prisoners were only give one blanket.
"It was freezing there. Every eight hours, the guards would take us out for just 10 minutes. The prisoners were given food twice a day, but their hands and feet were chained. They had to use the bathroom right there in the cell. This went on for weeks, or even up to a month," he says.
Mashhadani says he spent 21 days in a cell like this, because the Americans didn't like the answers he was giving them.
Now, he says, he wants to sue the American government. He wants compensation, or at least to clear his name.
"Until this moment," Mashhadani says, "they have not told me what my crime is."