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One of my favorite characters in Iraq (and there were plenty to choose from) was the Diyala Provincial Chief of Police, General Damouk. He was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever met another leader who has so forcefully led from the front in creating an environment of corruption. He loved to arrest people. In particular two kinds of people: Sunni politicians and anyone who’d pay to get out of jail.

As most of you undoubtedly know, Iraq has a decent share of sectarian violence. The country as a whole is mostly Shi’a Arabs, but there are sizeable proportions of Sunni Muslims and Kurds. (Incidentally, talking about “Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds” is like talking about “Jews, Catholics and Hispanics.” It doesn’t really make sense.) Anyway, in Diyala Province, the proportions of Sunnis and Shi’as were pretty much exactly reversed compared to the overall statistics and they had about the same proportion of Kurds. So it was a backwards mix and made things politically interesting since a lot of politics falls along these lines.

General Damouk, the head of all the police, happened to be a Shi’a and one who was very politically motivated. So one of his favorite targets were Sunni members of the elected Provincial Council (which is basically a state legislature). He would make up all sorts of reasons that were patently incorrect, but he succeeded in arresting a few and driving a couple into hiding. He never kept them for too long when he caught them, but it was kind of a catch-and-release program that kept them from actually accomplishing anything in Council sessions.

Not that the Council ever actually did anything, but whatever. Form over function.

His other favorite pastime was to have his police nab ordinary citizens for various trumped-up charges, then release them for a reasonable fee. Hey, it’s a way to increase revenue when tax collection is a joke, right? He was good though–we could never really pin anything on him. He kept removed enough that his hands were clean.

Of course, there were also the people who were actually arrested for potentially being bad guys. The trouble was that there was not always enough evidence to hold them or officially press charges (as if the courts could have handled all those cases anyway), so Iraq and the U.S. initiated detainee release programs for prisoners in those situations.

I got to be present at a couple detainee release events. It involved the Police Chief, our Brigade Commander, representatives from the Provincial Council (preferably not locked up ones), and members of the detainee’s family or village. One by one, the detainees would come into the room, we would listen to the specific charges, various people would vouch for him (or not), and then everyone would decide whether to let him go or send him back to prison.

My all-time favorite was one man in maybe his mid-20s who had been accused of making small bombs. He stood in front of us in his prisoner’s clothes, looking a bit scrawny but relatively healthy, with a small dark beard and short hair. He quietly but firmly declared his innocence and seemed pretty genuine. Except for the small fact that the reason he’d been arrested in the first place was that he had voluntarily turned himself in.

Huh, I guess prison didn’t seem so fun after a few weeks. Who’d have guessed?