WASHINGTON– Officials who manage detention centers in Iraq are getting a valuable look inside the mind of al-Qaida in Iraq, a senior U.S. military officer said here today.

“We have learned so much about who al-Qaida is; we have learned so much about how they recruit and what their intent is; we have learned so much about how to counter them and how to engage [the detainee population] with a very clear program that breaks away their support base,” Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone told Pentagon reporters.

About 21,000 detainees are being held in detention centers in Iraq under a United Nations resolution, said Stone, who recently completed a 14-month duty tour as the deputy commander of detention operations for Multinational Force Iraq.

Stone said he implemented a system last fall that separated hard-core extremists from more moderate members of the detention population. Moderate, well-behaved detainees, he told reporters, are rewarded with family visitation times, literacy and vocational training classes and more.

Confirmed extremists, including foreigners who entered Iraq to wage war against U.S. and Iraqi security forces and against Iraqi civilians are separated from non-extremists within the detention population, he said.

Moderate-thinking detainees deemed not to be security threats want to re-enter Iraqi society as peaceful, productive citizens, Stone said. The majority of these detainees, he explained, got into trouble helping insurgents by being lookouts or performing other low-level tasks — not because they shared the extremists’ philosophy, but because they were desperate for money.

Voluntary education and vocational programs offered at detention centers are providing moderate-thinking detainees a conduit to re-enter society as productive citizens, Stone said.

“We’re trying to find moderates, work with the moderates – they work against the extremists – and move on,” Stone explained.

Since 2004, about 50,000 people have been released from Iraq-based detention centers, Stone said. Currently, he noted, about 50 people are released from detention each day, while about 30 are brought into the detention system daily.

The detention system in Iraq now functions as a counterinsurgency tool that combats terrorist ideology, Stone explained. The concept, he said, originated with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq and a proponent of counterinsurgency doctrine.

“By running this population-engagement program called detention in a different manner, and with General Petraeus’ permission to do that, we have been very fortunate to understand better the nature of this enemy,” Stone said.

Al-Qaida operatives in Iraq recruit undereducated and impoverished people as well as mentally impaired citizens, Stone pointed out. Detention center education and vocational programs, he noted, are designed to reach out to moderate-thinking detainees and offer voluntary literacy classes in Arabic and English, as well as jobs training.

Many former detainees who have benefitted from such programs now teach civics classes to inmates or at halfway houses, the two-star general said.

“They’re happy, and like I said, we have them coming back to work with us,” Stone said.

The results are encouraging, Stone said, noting that 94 percent of people who have been released from Iraq-based detention centers haven’t come back.

“We are learning about ways to deal with radicalization — the process of it,” Stone said. “We are learning, very [clearly] about what this enemy wants to do, … how to counter their arguments, [and] what their arguments are.”

In another news conference earlier today, Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of Multinational Division North and the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division, said some former detainees who have benefitted from Stone’s detention-center programs are returning to his sector of Iraq.

“We understand that some of these guys were insurgents early on,” Hertling told reporters. “They since understand that the political process is growing, so they want to come back and be an active member of society.”

Iraqi leaders in his area have agreed to take responsibility to assist the former detainees and keep them out of trouble, Hertling said.

“So far, it’s going relatively well, but I will tell you that early on in the program, the less-dangerous criminals were the first ones released,” Hertling observed. “So, it may be a little bit too early for me to comment on that.” It’s imperative, he added, that more progress be made in creating jobs for Iraqi citizens, including those returning from stints at detention centers.

Ultimately, the job of managing detention centers in Iraq will be transferred to the Iraqi government, Stone predicted.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida continues its efforts to recruit more Iraqis, Stone said, as part of its vision to eventually subjugate the population.

“Al-Qaida wants this territory. They want it, and they want these people, … and we are finding ways to stop it,” Stone said.

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