For Iraqi Family,
A Torturous Search
For Detained Kin
Overwhelmed U.S. Military Can't Track Everyone
Arrested in Security Raids, Inciting Iraqis' Rage
By FARNAZ FASSIHI - Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In an early-morning raid on Aug. 3, American soldiers kicked down the door of Najim Abdulhussein's house and took him away, along with his 17-year-old son, Qutaibah. Their family has been searching for them ever since.
Sent to a local police station, relatives were told not to expect any answers for at least a month. Qutaibah's 16-year-old sister waited four hours in 130-degree heat at a military-information center, only to be told by a U.S. major that he couldn't find her brother and father in a database that should have contained their whereabouts. Another relative went to an American-run prison holding Iraqi detainees, where he stood at the gates speaking vainly in Arabic, while a soldier tried to tell him that all the translators were stuck in a meeting.
The only results: growing anxiety and frustration over the fate of the 52-year-old grocer and his teenage son -- and mounting anger toward the occupiers. "They treat us all the same, like we are their enemies," Ahmad Al-Naeem, an Abdulhussein neighbor, said of the Americans. "Then they wonder why people hate them and form resistance groups."
Almost every night, as part of an urgent drive to bring security to Iraq, the U.S. military carries out raids in neighborhoods across Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Frequently, one or more male family members are taken away for further investigation. The number of detainees in greater Baghdad is now more than 7,000, according to the U.S. military.
Military officials say the raids help foil resistance and capture Iraqis plotting against the U.S. occupation. But even some of those officials concede the overburdened detention system these men are thrust into is unprepared to process them properly -- or to sift out the truly dangerous in their midst.
Meanwhile, mistakes, or even the mishandled detentions of true threats, can alienate extended Iraqi families and even whole communities at a time when the U.S. desperately needs the active support of the Iraqi population.
Concerned about angering too many Iraqis, the military last month abandoned house-to-house raids in which whole neighborhoods were targeted in areas where American soldiers had come under attack. Now, the military tries to aim more precisely, based on intelligence pointing to suspicious Iraqis.
The Abdulhusseins' clash with U.S. authorities began when two people from the al-Khadria district, the middle-class enclave where the family lives, told Capt. Sean McWilliams that Mr. Abdulhussein was acting suspiciously. Capt. McWilliams said the tipsters were credible but declined to identify them or elaborate on what sort of suspicious behavior they described.
Capt. McWilliams, a 30-year-old from Florida, oversees military raids in Khadria. He is also the civil-affairs liaison with the area, responsible for trying to help the community solve its day-to-day problems, from garbage collection to electricity shortages. The dual role is particularly tricky in a neighborhood that residents say was home to several former intelligence agents and fedayeen, or paramilitary fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein.
Capt. McWilliams said the two tips caught him by surprise. He knew the elder Mr. Adbulhussein, whose small grocery store is adjacent to his home. The grocer had regularly attended the community meetings Capt. McWilliams organized to field complaints and discuss solutions. When Capt. McWilliams asked for volunteers, Mr. Abdulhussein offered to distribute badly needed cooking-gas cylinders in his car. Capt. McWilliams said he always found the grocer cordial and helpful.
Mr. Abdulhussein was even chosen by his neighbors to sit on the 15-member council Capt. McWilliams and his troops set up to represent neighborhood residents at the meetings. "He seemed like a nice guy, but these are dangerous times in Iraq," said Capt. McWilliams. "Our men are getting killed every day, and so are Iraqis. So when I get a credible tip, I have the responsibility to act on it."
At 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 3, Mr. Abdulhussein's 42-year-old wife, Jinan Ghattam, said she awoke to the churning sound of a Humvee outside her home. Like many Iraqis who don't have electricity for fans or air conditioning, she and four of her five children had been sleeping on the roof to escape the heat. Expecting soldiers to enter the house at any moment, she threw on a head-to-toe black robe to assure she was properly covered. She begged her children not to cry.
The soldiers had kicked down the front door and entered the living room before her husband, who had been sleeping elsewhere in the small house, reached the ground floor, she said. Ms. Ghattam and her children were told to step out into the street while soldiers searched the house and the store.
Inside the store, the soldiers found a plastic bag containing chemical powder and wax, which army engineers later determined could potentially be combined to make an explosive. Ms. Ghattam and the family's neighbors said they told the Americans that Mr. Abdulhussein used the chemicals to produce helium for balloons used during religious holidays.
Capt. McWilliams said this could be true but that the presence of potential ingredients for explosives, combined with the informants' tips, gave him little choice but to detain Mr. Abdulhussein, as well as his oldest son. When Ms. Ghattam pleaded for information about where they were being taken, a military translator with the Americans told her to go to the local police station the next morning, she said.
The next day, Ms. Ghattam and her younger brother Firas walked down the palm-lined boulevard that leads to the Khadria police station, a block from their home. An Iraqi policeman listened patiently and then told them there was no information available about detainees, they said.
Ms. Ghattam broke into tears, creating a scene that drew a U.S. military police sergeant nearby. Sgt. Alan George had Ms. Ghattam fill out a form with her relatives' names, addresses, ages and profession, and told her and her brother to return in a few days. After the family made several visits to the station in the weeks that followed, however, Sgt. George finally decided to level with them. "I told them not to expect any answers in less than a month," he said. "Since I've been here in July, only about 10% of families get answers here."
The Abdulhusseins had been swallowed up by a detention system that by all accounts is overwhelmed. The U.S. occupation deals with two types of detainees. Those considered common criminals or people trying to harm other Iraqis may be kept at U.S.-operated detention centers, but they are adjudicated under existing Iraqi law.
Iraqis suspected of presenting a threat to coalition soldiers -- which can be as specific as throwing a grenade at troops, or as vague as being a Saddam Hussein loyalist -- are held and processed by the U.S. military. The military hasn't made clear what legal rules apply in these cases.
Detentions can go on indefinitely. A number of detainees have been released after the military decided they had made a mistake. The vast majority remain in custody, awaiting further investigation. None of the investigations for security detainees have been completed since the U.S. took over Iraq in early April, according to Lt. Col. Kirk Warner, the deputy staff judge advocate of the coalition. Lt. Col. Warner oversees both the Iraqi and coalition's justice system.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which spells out rules of conduct for an occupying power, the U.S. is supposed to inform detainees' families about where they are being kept and why. Detainees are supposed to be able to correspond with relatives and receive visits from them. Juveniles are supposed to be segregated from adults.
International organizations such as the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have sharply criticized the U.S. for failing to track detainees or even try to notify families. "They keep saying they don't have the staff or the resources to do it, but I'm sorry, that's not an excuse," said Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Baghdad.
U.S. military officials said they are doing their best but acknowledged shortcomings. "We know we haven't done great, but we are trying to improve," said Lt. Col. Warner.
After striking out with the Iraqi police the day after the Aug. 3 raid, the family of Najim and Qutaibah Abdulhussein shifted its search to the large U.S. military installation in the area: a base known as FOB Red Falcon, which occupies an unfinished Iraqi Army housing complex in a dusty field.
Najim's brothers-in-law, Nidal and Firas Ghattam, said they approached the gate. A soldier guarding the entrance radioed inside, and then told them they had come to the wrong place. The facility was only a way station from which detainees are quickly transferred elsewhere. The soldier didn't know to where but suggested they try the local police station they had just come from, or the coalition's information center, where an electronic database on detainees was supposed to be available, the Ghattams said.
Firas said he returned home feeling hopeful. He told his sister Jinan they could be close to learning something. He picked up the Abdulhusseins' 16-year-old daughter, Shahed, who was anxious and wanted to help in the search, and told her he was going to the information center.
Nidal didn't tell the nervous girl about his next stop. He rented a cab to visit Baghdad's big hospitals and the central morgue -- where he learned nothing.
Firas and Shahed said that when they arrived at the coalition information center, a massive gray structure that used to be a government-run supermarket, more than 50 other families were waiting before the barbed-wire gate. The temperature exceeded 130 degrees. Four hours later, Firas and Shahed said they were permitted to enter. Maj. Hector Flores-Ortiz patiently checked a laptop computer for several possible English spellings of the names. There is no list in Arabic, although U.S. officials said they are trying to make one.
No luck, the major finally told them.
"Detainees are supposed to get capture tag numbers that are entered into the system within three days of their arrest," Maj. Flores-Ortiz explained in an interview. "But of course it never happens sooner than two or three weeks." He sees at least 60 Iraqis a day with similar requests for information about detainees. "We are trying hard to accommodate the Iraqi families and understand their problems," he said. "But the truth is that the American military is overworked, overwhelmed and under-resourced here."
Several more weeks passed with no news. The Ghattams contacted an Iraqi lawyer, who told them there was little that could be done if the American military was holding the men. He urged them to try to make sure the military knew the son Qutaibah was a minor and should be kept separate from the adults.
Word of the Abdulhusseins' detention and the family's frustrating search spread through the Khadria community. "I had visitors every day the first week," said Ms. Ghattam, a stocky woman with a round face and short brown hair. "They all said to me, now we know the real face of Americans. They arrest even people who work with them. They are not here to give us freedom and democracy."
Mr. Naeem, the neighbor, still calls on the Ghattam family to offer help. He had done volunteer work with Mr. Abdulhussein at the local mosque. During the war, the two men escorted neighbors to the hospital, helped fix electrical wires and distributed food to widows and the elderly.
"In May, when the Americans came here, we wrote a letter to Capt. McWilliams and told him we have done a lot of volunteer work and want to have good relations with the Americans to help make Iraq a better place now that Saddam is gone," said Mr. Naeem, 37. "But then they stabbed us in the back and arrested our friends. Now I don't even bother any more. Why should I help the Americans?"
Capt. McWilliams's relations with the community have deteriorated rapidly -- to the point that he has tried to locate the pair himself to see if he could speed up the investigation. Tensions boiled over at one of his weekly community meetings, when more than two dozen outraged neighbors demanded answers, via a translator. "We used to consider you a friend!" one neighbor shouted at the captain. "But you are not our friend anymore. You arrest our friends and our children. If anything happens to them, you will be our enemy."
Capt. McWilliams tried to explain: "You tell me your No. 1 concern is security, but when I arrest the people I think are dangerous, you shout at me. What am I supposed to do?"
Then Firas Ghattam raised his hand. "Where are Qutaibah and his father?" he asked.
"I was told they are at the Abu Ghraib prison," Capt. McWilliams replied. "I tried to get them out, but I don't think I can. They are under investigation for now."
"Do they know Qutaibah is 17?" the boy's uncle asked. "They cannot keep him with the adults."
Capt. McWilliams shook his head. "They didn't know at first," he said. "He looked older, and no one asked his age. I've informed the chain of command, and we'll see what happens."
The U.S. military is holding some 500 Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, outside Baghdad. The news that the Abdulhusseins were being detained there provided some relief to the family for a few days. Then a mortar attack on the prison on Aug. 16 left six Iraqis dead and dozens more injured -- and heightened anxiety about the Abdulhusseins.
Two days after the mortar barrage, which U.S. officials blamed on Saddam Hussein loyalists, Nidal Ghattam approached the barbed wire at the prison's entrance. Ninety minutes passed before an American soldier called out to the crowd at the gate, "No translator, no translator."
Mr. Ghattam, who doesn't understand English, joined the others around him in looking puzzled. "I just want to know if they are dead or alive," he said in Arabic, which the soldier didn't understand. "Imagine if it were your family in there. What would you do?"
"I don't know anything sir," the soldier said. "I asked for a translator several times to come to the gate and answer your questions, but they tell me all the translators are in a meeting."
The soldier finally pointed to a piece of cardboard pinned to one of the sandbags nearby. In Arabic and English, it instructed families inquiring about detainees to go the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad.
Arriving at 1 p.m. at the Red Cross, Mr. Ghattam was told he was too late. Hundreds of people were in line ahead of him, and the office closed for business at 2 p.m.
"It's been like this for one month," Mr. Ghattam said. "Wherever we go, they say no news, come back later, you are late, you are early. What am I going to say to my poor sister now? I can't bear to tell her 'no answer' again."
Weeks more have passed since then, and the family has still received no official word about the father and son. A stranger recently showed up at Ms. Ghattam's door and told her he had been released from Camp Cropper, a detention facility near the Baghdad airport. The Abdulhusseins were there, he told her.
But by then, security concerns had prompted the Red Cross to shut down its detention-information center. Another trip to the coalition information office produced nothing.
Back at the Abdulhusseins' modest cement-and-brick home, the family makes do. Muhammad, the 14-year-old son, runs the grocery store, so there is a small income. Shahed helps with household chores and looks after the four-year-old twins.
Ms. Ghattam worries. "I'm a mother like every other mother in the world," she said, clutching a passport-size photograph of her detained son. "I worry, and I cry, but mostly I pray that justice be done and they are released very soon. I will then have the biggest party in the neighborhood."