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Democrats Mull Plan To Close Guantanamo

Key House Democrats said Thursday they are considering a plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the end of 2008, with the exception of several dozen detainees in the war on terror who would be kept at the facility and tried there.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said he hopes to include the provision in legislation this spring that Democrats also intend to use to try to prevent further increases in troop strength in the war in Iraq.

Without public notice, Murtha dispatched Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., to the detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay on a one-day trip late last month to recommend ways for closing it. Both men said the prison has become counterproductive as the United States tries to win converts overseas in the war on terror.

"Without closing it, this just plays into the propaganda of the enemy," Moran said in an interview.

The prison was opened on Jan 11, 2002, and none of the more than 700 prisoners who have entered the facility — suspected of links to al Qaeda and the Taliban — has ever been tried.

Moran said there currently are 393 detainees at the prison, and added he had told Murtha about 80 of are likely to face trial, including 14 whom he described as high value targets.

The Virginia lawmaker said 87 other detainees can probably be released without trial and should go either to their country of origin, or if that isn't possible, to Afghanistan, where they were captured.

Moran said he had recommended requiring the administration to review the cases of the remaining detainees promptly and decide which of them should be held for trial and which should be released.

The facility at Guantanamo Bay has been the subject of extensive political and legal debate, and drawn protests by human rights activists since it was opened. The European Union has urged closing the facility.

The Pentagon recently released new rules to govern trials at the prison, based on a law passed by Congress last year that permits the administration to go ahead with special military commissioners to hear the cases.

Authorities recently drafted charges against three detainees, and they are expected to be formally filed soon. Once that occurs, regulations require preliminary hearings within 30 days and the start of a jury trial within 120 days at Guantanamo Bay.

Moran estimated that it could take five years for all the trials to take place.

He said the rest of the prison population should be out at least by the end of next year. "That is our intent. We feel this is one of the reasons we've lost so much credibility" in the war on terror, he said.

Murtha is chairman of a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over spending on military matters. Moran is a member of the panel.

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