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US to Temporarily Hold Captured ISIS Leaders for Interrogation

Militias of the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) deploy in an area in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June 11, 2014 (AP Photo)

The U.S. has no intention of setting up a permanent site for the detention and interrogation of terror suspects in Iraq and will only hold them for periods loosely defined as "short term," a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Friday.

"Fourteen to 30 days is a ballpark figure, but even that is not really completely nailed down," said Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. "There isn't a hard definition of short-term."

However, a top U.S. commander has said that options must be considered for the long-term detention of leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, as the U.S. steps up Special Forces raids in both countries.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said the U.S. will need a detention plan as more suspects are captured.

Under questioning from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, Votel, who has been nominated to take over U.S. Central Command, said, "I would agree there is a requirement for long-term detention, senator."

Since the campaign to defeat ISIS began in the summer of 2014, the U.S. has publicly acknowledged capturing and interrogating only two high-value members of the group and both have since been turned over to Iraqi authorities under an agreement to allow continued access, Warren said.

"This is not a catch and release program," he said. "If we've got to go back and talk to them, we'll go back and talk to them." There were currently no plans to build a detention facility for terror suspect in Iraq, he said.

"We are confident (the Iraqis) can hold them," Warren said on Friday in a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon. "If some escape, then we'll just go catch them again or kill them." 

The two ISIS members the U.S. has admitted to holding were both captured in raids by U.S. Special Forces teams. Both yielded valuable intelligence under interrogation while they were held at a location believed to be in or near Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, according to Defense and State Department officials.

Despite the U.S. claim to have held only two terror suspects, The New York Times earlier this week reported that Special Forces teams had captured a "handful" of ISIS operatives and the Pentagon was "now faced with the prospect of detaining a larger group of captives."

Late last year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said a so-called expeditionary targeting force of about 200 Special Operations troops was being set up in Iraq with the mission of killing or capturing ISIS leaders. In recent weeks, defense officials have said that the force had begun operations.

In a raid in Syria last May, U.S. Delta Force troops captured Nasrin As'ad Ibrahim, also known as Umm Sayyaf. She was the wife of ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, who was killed in the raid. A young Yazidi woman also was rescued in the raid. Umm Sayyaf was held by the U.S. in Iraq and was later turned over to the Kurdish regional authorities in Irbil.

In a statement at the time, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan, using another acronym for ISIS, said, "We suspect that Umm Sayyaf is a member of ISIL, played an important role in ISIL's terrorist activities, and may have been complicit in the enslavement of the young woman rescued last night."

The second ISIS operative captured and detained by the U.S. has been identified as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, believed to be an ISIS chemical weapons expert. He was captured last month in a Special Forces raid in northern Iraq west of Mosul.

Intelligence gleaned from the interrogation of al-Afari led to two U.S. airstrikes near Mosul last week that were believed to have destroyed to chemical weapons facilities, Warren said.

On Thursday, fifteen Republican senators, including presidential candidates Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, offered a resolution calling upon the Obama administration to send ISIS operatives captured in Iraq or Syria to the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility to be held indefinitely.

No new prisoners have been sent to Guantanamo since 2009, when President Barack Obama signed an executive order to begin the process to close the facility. Congress has since passed bills to block the closing.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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