The three hotels in this suburb of Basra, the largest city in southern Iraq, are always full. "We don't have tourism here," says Jabbar Mubarak, the clerk at the Bourj al-Babil, Zubair's largest hotel. "Everyone who comes to our hotel comes to visit their sons."
The "sons" are in Camp Bucca. A half-hour's drive from Zubair toward the Kuwaiti border, Bucca is the U.S. military's largest detention center in Iraq. It currently holds about 18,000 Iraqis, the majority of those in U.S. custody. An additional 3,000 are at Camp Cropper at Baghdad Airport.
At 3:30 am each day, a dozen minibuses line up outside the Bourj al-Babil to make the trip to the prison, where visiting hours begin at 7 a.m.
Long before dawn, the hotel lobby swarms with families, some of whom have driven more than 10 hours.
Despite recent offensives against anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, Iraq's largest Shi'ite militia, about 80 percent of the detainees are Sunnis from the central and northern parts of the country.
The most frequent complaint is that detainees are held for months without being charged with any crime.
"Why don't the U.S. forces charge him if he has done something?" asked Hadia Khalaf, whose son Qusay was arrested nearly a year ago. "Then at least we would know how long he will be here."
U.S. detention operations in Iraq have had a rocky record.
Torture and other abuse at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad in 2003 and 2004 received the most outside attention, but thousands of U.S. prisoners elsewhere in Iraq complained of a lack of medical care, poor treatment by guards, inedible food and exposure to extreme weather, including flooding.
The U.S. military had not expected to be in the detention business after the 2003 invasion. There were only 90 U.S. military personnel to guard 7,000 prisoners at Abu Ghraib four years ago. The number of U.S. troops and contractors tasked to detention operations now totals about 10,000 - sufficient to allow authorities to review cases every six months. The U.S. military says the average length of detention is 330 days.
Ten detainees released from Bucca in the past six months said the food was good, some vocational instruction was available and overall treatment better than they had expected, although some said they had been roughly interrogated by U.S. forces before being incarcerated.
"The first three days, they didn't give me any food," said Samir Mohamed, who was arrested while driving between Damascus, Syria, and Baghdad in 2007. Mr. Mohamed said he was blindfolded for three days while he was interrogated and beaten entirely.
"They put cigarettes out on me," he said. He said he spent eight months in detention before being released in February this year.
Since 2003, approximately 65,000 Iraqis have been officially detained by the U.S. military. Another 65,000 have been held for short periods and not sent to a major internment facility such as Bucca or Camp Cropper. The latter facility serves as the system's in- and out-processing center.
Detention can be extended indefinitely. Capt. Cornelia Schultz, a military spokeswoman, said approximately 10 percent of detainees have been in custody since at least 2005, 20 percent have been held since 2006, 50 percent since 2007 and 20 percent were detained this year. At the moment, overall numbers are dropping, with an average of 45 detainees being released and 30 entering the system each day.
Among the issues being negotiated under a new memorandum of understanding between the United States and Iraq is an Iraqi demand that the U.S. military no longer detain Iraqis without the Baghdad government's approval.
"The idea is not to tie the hands of the ground troops," said Capt. Dylan Imperato, a military lawyer at Cropper.
Reviews are conducted by a panel of three U.S. military officers.
"The level to convict at a criminal court would be a higher level to reach than to determine whether or not they're an imperative security threat," said Capt. Imperato. "We don't limit [the review boards] in any major way. We give them kind of broad discretion to make that determination."
Capt. Slack noted that part of the militia's strength and appeal is its dual role as a political party. A major issue is whether Mr. al-Maliki will follow through with a request that the U.S. military set a timetable for withdrawal - a demand that since 2003 has made Mr. al-Sadr a popular figure.
Capt. Imperato said there are many factors for determining whether to extend detention or recommend release.
Sam Parker, an Iraq specialist with the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, said Mr. al-Sadr still commands a large degree of popular support and would get a response if he issued a call to arms, even though the cleric's influence has waned.
"You're not determining guilt or innocence, and you're not strictly looking at the conduct that got them into [detention] in the first place," he said. "You're looking at what their plans are when they get out. Does he have something to go back to? A family, a job? Something that would make him less susceptible to al Qaeda or any other group?"