Sunday, March 18, 2007

10 Detainees Pull Off Escape as Visitors Take Their Place

10 Detainees Pull Off Escape as Visitors Take Their Place
By Alissa J. Rubin
New York Times

BAGHDAD, March 16 — Ten Iraqis being held in a British military detention center in Basra carried out an audacious escape plan over the past several days: they switched places with visitors, British authorities said Friday.

An 11th detainee was missing, but no one appeared to have been substituted for him, British authorities said. The detention center is at a British base on the outskirts of Basra.

The escape came to light on Thursday, when it became apparent that “one person was not who he said he was,” said a spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity. The military began to investigate and found that nine other detainees were also substitutes. The real ones had walked out the door, apparently after swapping clothes with their willing stand-ins, British officials said.

The substitutions were carefully plotted, and the imposters “were remarkably well prepared,” the spokesman said.

“They looked the same,” he said. “They knew the stories of the people they were substituting for. It was quite a sophisticated effort, very carefully planned.”

Because none of the detainees who escaped had yet been charged with a crime, the British military would not provide any details about their cases or the facility in which they were held, including its size or the length of time that they had been held there.

British officials said that security was now tighter, but that when detainees received visitors before, there had been little monitoring.

“They are allowed a large number of visitors, and we are not allowed to stand over them when they are visiting them,” the spokesman said.

There has been no decision how to deal with the imposters, but they are likely to be charged with having assisted the escape, the military spokesman said.

“I’m afraid that there are now people inside who shouldn’t be,” he said. “We are very unhappy about it all.”

Thousands of Iraqis are held in American and British facilities in Iraq awaiting determinations on whether they will be charged with crimes. Some have been detained for more than two years.

Across Iraq, 12 bodies were found on Friday: nine in Diyala Province and three in Kirkuk, according to local police reports and the Ministry of Interior. On Thursday, the bodies of five people were found in Tikrit, including of two women and two policemen; all five had been shot.

A tanker truck exploded late Friday near Ameriya al Falluja, outside the city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, according to reports by the satellite network Al Arabiya. The news report described the explosion as a terrorist attack and said that three people had died and 79 had been wounded. There were few details and it was not possible to verify the report.

The United States Army announced Friday that it was speeding up the deployment to Iraq of some 2,600 soldiers from a combat aviation unit. They are among the support troops that the Pentagon has said are needed to back the additional combat troops President Bush has sent to the region.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved the deployment of the soldiers, from the Army’s Third Infantry Division combat aviation brigade, 45 days earlier than planned, meaning they will go around May, the military told Pentagon reporters.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the vast Sadr City district of Baghdad to rally against the deployment of American troops in the neighborhood. A similar demonstration was planned for the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, but was prevented by a government curfew.

The objections, coming after nearly two weeks in which supporters of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr appeared to have tacitly approved the establishment of security centers for Iraqi and American troops, seem to have been prompted by an attack that seriously wounded Sadr City’s mayor on Thursday.

After Friday Prayer, the Sadr City crowds chanted, “We swear by God we shall burn your bases if you install them,” and they carried banners that said “Down, down U.S.A.”

Mr. Sadr sent a statement to his followers urging them to protest the American presence. “I’m very sure that you consider them as enemies,” the statement said, and it asked his followers to shout: “No, no, America. No, no, Israel. No, no, Satan.”

However, the tone was far less angry than at other times Mr. Sadr has urged opposition to the military. Instead, the statement mostly seemed to be an effort by the cleric to distance himself from the security plan without making any substantial effort to thwart it.

Also Friday, Saddoun Humadi, one of the most senior Shiites in the government of Saddam Hussein, died in Jordan, according to Jordanian news reports. Mr. Humadi, a former prime minister and speaker in the Iraqi Parliament, was arrested by the United States after the invasion, but was later released and went to Jordan.

Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Washington, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Diyala, Kirkuk, Hilla and Baghdad.