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US building new jails to ease crowding

BAGHDAD -- Faced with a ballooning prison population, US commanders in Iraq are building new detention facilities at Abu Ghraib prison and at Camp Bucca near the Kuwaiti border -- and are developing a third major prison, in northern Iraq.

The burgeoning number of detainees has also resulted in a lengthy delay in plans for the United States to leave Abu Ghraib fully in the hands of the Iraqi government.

Major General William Brandenburg, who oversees US-run prisons in Iraq, had originally planned to be out of Abu Ghraib by early spring. ''I believed it until mid-December, but the numbers just weren't going that way," he said. ''Business is booming."

The new timeline calls for the United States to stop using Abu Ghraib by February 2006, at which point the entire prison would be turned over to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

Following the 2003 scandal over abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers, President Bush had advocated demolishing Abu Ghraib ''as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning."

But the Iraqi government has since begun using the prison, which had been a torture center under Saddam Hussein, to house its own prisoners convicted under its nascent criminal justice system. The prison, just west of Baghdad, is currently a joint facility, with the US Army and Iraqi government housing detainees in separate compounds.

Aggressive operations against insurgents over the past six months have brought a flood of new prisoners to US-run facilities, including many thought to be hard-line rebels who have launched bloody attacks on American troops.

The number of prisoners held by the United States in Iraq reached record levels earlier in the month of June, and has since gone down slightly. Through Saturday the average prisoner total in June stood at 10,783, up from 7,837 in January and 5,435 in June 2004.

The two main Army-run prisons, Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad and Camp Bucca, are both operating near their maximum or ''surge" emergency limits. As of Saturday, the two prisons held 10,178 inmates, with 1,630 more awaiting processing in different Army divisional and brigade headquarters.

''We're pushing our surge capacity," said Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Guy Rudisill in Baghdad.

The Army is expanding both sites and planning the third major prison, which would house as many as 2,000 inmates, near Suleimaniyah; the construction boom will increase the total US long-term detention capability to more than 16,000 prisoners.

Both existing major US-run detention camps in Iraq are considered volatile compounds whose guards must be on constant lookout for potential riots and escape attempts.

The potential impact of the overcrowding on both prisoners and guards could become a serious concern as Iraq moves into the heart of a traditionally broiling summer. High stress among overworked US military police is partially blamed for leading to the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners last year that made Abu Ghraib synonymous to many Iraqis with US abuse.

Bucca, meanwhile, has contended with a spate of escape attempts and at least two major riots in the past six months.

''It's been a challenge," said Colonel James Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade. ''Many of the people we've now captured have not given up the struggle."

Brown has reassigned MPs from other duties in Iraq, including the vital task of training new Iraqi police officers, to help beef up the guard force at Bucca and Abu Ghraib.

Brandenburg emphasized that he still hopes to end the US presence at Abu Ghraib by early next year.

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