WASHINGTON – Coalition forces have released nearly 900 Iraqi prisoners, beginning the process of sorting through the thousands detained in the month-old war, a U.S. defense official said Friday.
"We stated from the beginning that we don't want to hold anybody any longer than absolutely necessary," said Maj. Ted Wadsworth, a Pentagon spokesman. "The process of sorting people to determine their status has begun."
Those released were determined to be noncombatants, he said, meaning they did not engage in hostile acts during the war and were not part of a military force.
For instance, they may have been civilians caught up in the fighting, Wadsworth said, adding that warring forces have the right and the obligation to take from the battlefield anyone who is a risk to security or who may be in harm's way.
A total of 887 prisoners that had been held in the southern city of Umm Qasr — some in a British camp and others in an American camp — have been released, the bulk in the last two weeks, Wadsworth said.
The number of prisoners remaining there — now all combined under U.S. control — is 6,850 prisoners, he said. An unknown number of additional prisoners are at temporary holding facilities elsewhere or still with the military units that captured them, and their number will not be added to the total until they make there way to the Umm Qasr facility, Wadsworth said.
A tent city that could hold up to 24,000 prisoners is being constructed in the city.
An interrogation facility also is planned, officials have said, adding that not all prisoners have been identified and that they hope to get intelligence from some.
Authorities also had problems obtaining the true identities of terror suspects from the counter-terror war in Afghanistan. Several hundred are still being held at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay Cuba.
There are no current plans to send prisoners to the facility in Guantanamo, officials have said.
Among the prisoner held at Umm Qasr, defense officials have said there are a number of high-ranking officers. And in recent days, the capture of some high-level officials have been announced by war commanders.
Defense officials hope to get information from them that might lead to the discovery of weapons of mass destruction which the Bush administration says the fallen regime of Saddam Hussein had — and which was part of the justification for war.
International conventions allow that the prisoners can be held until the end of hostilities. The Bush administration also has said it will prosecute Iraqi leaders who committed war crimes against American soldiers in this campaign and the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
Meanwhile, the coalition continues to take more prisoners, pressing its hunt for former leaders of the Iraqi regime as well as weapons and securing Baghdad.
Kurds in the coalition force captured senior Baath Party official Samir Abd al-Aziz al-Najim, marking the second time in as many days that troops have found someone on U.S. most-wanted list of former regime figures, the Central Command reported Friday. Thursday, U.S. forces grabbed Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, a half-brother of Saddam Hussein and a former head of Iraqi intelligence.
There is still was no concrete information about Saddam's whereabouts or whether he had been killed in coalition airstrikes that had targeted him specifically.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said finding people who know details of any chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs will be the key to disarming Iraq.
"I don't think we'll discover anything, myself," Rumsfeld said at a town hall-style meeting with Pentagon employees.
"I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something."
U.S. troops have found a number of suspicious chemicals and facilities but tests on them have proved negative or inconclusive.