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By Nancy Mayfield
THOMSON, Illinois (Reuters) - Moving detainees from Guantanamo Bay to a largely unused prison in this hamlet would create much-needed jobs, said officials who toured the rural prison on Monday, dismissing widespread concern about risks to security from America's sworn enemies and their allies.
A proposal to have the U.S. Bureau of Prisons buy the 1,600-cell Thomson Correctional Centre from the cash-strapped state of Illinois and use part of it to house some 100 foreign terrorism suspects has triggered a partisan political battle.
Republicans and some security experts have been harshly critical of the Obama administration's plans to bring the detainees into the United States for trial or incarceration, arguing they would compromise the nation's security and enjoy legal protections they do not deserve.
President Barack Obama, whose home state is Illinois, has said he will close the prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January 22, though White House officials have said that deadline may not be met.
Illinois' proposal is one of a few requests to house the detainees, as economically hard-pressed states seek the jolt a federal prison would bring. The White House has said several sites are being considered.
Holding the prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo has generated international criticism.
Guantanamo has become "a recruiting tool for terrorists. ... This is a new chapter," said Phil Carter, who is in charge of detainee policy at the Department of Defence.
"Steps will be taken to minimize risks," he added, citing the proximity of federal law enforcement agencies that could be tapped in Chicago, 150 miles (240 km) east of Thomson.
The eight-year-old facility in Thomson is "well-constructed, well-designed and it provides the security enhancements and capabilities we would require and expect for the type of inmates we would house here," said Harley Lappin, head of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, who was also on the tour.
How many local jobs would be created was disputed.
Supporters of the federal takeover said it could inject some $1 billion into the local economy and generate as many as 3,250 jobs, but Republicans said the impact would be smaller.
Lappin said there would be as many as 500 new hires, and the prison would have an $85 million annual budget. Between 1,000 and 1,500 guards would watch over the detainees.
Residents in the town of 600 people were generally in favour of the infusion of federal money, but some expressed reservations about the possible risks.
"It wouldn't bother me any. My wife is kind of stirred up about it, though. She's a little scared," said Larry Kness, a retiree walking his dog along Main Street.
Lewis Frosh, 70, questioned critics' worst fears: a prisoner escape or accomplices attempting to break them out.
"It would be hard for an insurgent-type outfit to blend in. People who aren't from here don't blend in well, it's too small. Any unusual activity gets people's attention," he said.
Republicans are seeking a vote on legislation that would prohibit the administration from releasing or transferring detainees to the United States for trial. The administration announced on Friday it will hold trials for accused September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others in New York.
Republican Representative Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is running for Obama's former Senate seat, said court hearings for the detainees posed a risk and a nuclear plant near Thomson could become a target.
"Speculation where terrorists will strike next? That doesn't help us as a nation," responded Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, at a Chicago news conference.
(Additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago and Andy Sullivan in Washington; writing by Andrew Stern; editing by Todd Eastham)