BAGHDAD // In the once restive city of Fallujah, Umm Mohammed used to sit and pray that her son, who was captured while fighting US forces, would be released from prison. Now, more than two years after the arrest, she is so terrified by the prospect of his return she instead prays that he will stay in detention, preferably in US hands.
"If my son comes home, he will be killed," she said. "There are people here saying he murdered their son, who was working as an interpreter with American forces, and they want to get revenge." Umm Mohammed, who spoke on condition that her full name not be used, lives alone in a small house, surviving on a widow's pension, She is one of numerous Iraqis living under a shadow of vengeance as prisoners are freed from US and government-run jails.
Her son, Mohammed, had been in US custody but, with the closing of Camp Bucca last year, she believes he may have been transferred to the Iraqi authorities. When the US military was in charge of detentions, she was able to make the long trip south for occasional visits. Now she has no idea where he is. She is concerned that, unless she is able to warn him of the threat to his life, he may be freed under an amnesty programme, and unwittingly come home to his death.
"Mohammed was fighting the Americans, I always knew that," she explained. "But he always said he never killed Iraqis, and that he would never kill anyone innocent. "I believed him, but then people in my city started to say that he killed their son. I don't know if they are right but, even if they are, he is still my child and I must help him. "A mother will do all she can to keep her child alive, even if he has wronged others."
With Washington cutting back its role in Iraq, most of the more than 20,000 prisoners it was once responsible for have been put into Iraqi custody or released. About 5,000 are still in US-run jails: Camp Cropper in Baghdad and al Taji, to the west of the city. Taji is due to come under Iraqi control in March. "I'm proud that my husband was put in prison for helping to resist the Americans," said Umm Haneen, a 38 year-old mother of two from Abu Ghraib, 30km west of Baghdad. "He was fighting for his country."
He was held at Camp Bucca, 550km south of the Iraqi capital. Umm Haneen said she last saw her husband shortly before the facility was closed in September. "As soon as people thought he would be set free I started to hear that there were some here who want to kill him," she said. "Some people here lost family members in the fighting. They were working for the Americans or the Iraqi police and army, and they don't accept that my husband was doing his duty in the resistance.
"They call him a murderer and say he must give up his life." According to Umm Haneen, also not willing to disclose her full name for publication, she has made a plan that, as soon as her husband is released, they will flee to neighbouring Syria. "Those who want revenge don't know who killed their sons and fathers so they will kill anyone from the resistance. "They will never forget and never forgive - and that means we have no future in Iraq."
Accusations of post-prison revenge attacks are not unfounded. Iraqis who lost family members to insurgents said they were waiting for their chance to avenge the deaths. "The man who killed my brother was in Bucca and I am sure he will be able to bribe his way out of an Iraqi police prison," said Ra'ad Ashraf, 55, from Adhamiyah in central Baghdad, an area once notorious as a stronghold for insurgents.
"I know his name and I know his face. When he gets released, I will kill him myself. It is the only way my brother will be able to rest in peace in his grave." Mr Ashraf's brother, Sa'ad, worked as an interpreter for US forces until he was murdered in 2006. He left behind a wife and four daughters. "I told my brother not to work for the Americans, but he was not doing anything wrong in the end, he was just feeding his family," Mr Ashraf said. "For that reason I will kill the man who killed him. If I fail, I have taught my brother's daughters that it will become their duty to kill him. They owe that to their father."
According to Umm Mohammed, more than a dozen former prisoners who returned to Fallujah were killed since Bucca closed, all in acts of revenge. It was not possible to independently verify the figure, but academic experts have warned such murders are among the social problems to be expected of such a bitter and a bloody conflict. "I'm afraid there will be a kind of war of revenge once the Americans have left," said Mohammed al Jabouri, a professor of sociology at Baghdad's Mustansariya University. "Unless specific steps are taken to prevent revenge, it will happen.
"At the least we need to have an honest court reviewing all cases. If not, there will be a persistent sense that the guilty were freed without paying for their crime." email@example.com