Abu Ghraib prison was notorious before American mistreatment of Iraqis

PTI | ByAssociated Press, Abu Ghraib, Iraq
May 17, 2004 07:59 PM IST

The 280-acre Abu Ghraib prison, a jumble of top-security jail houses and low-risk tent cities, was one of the world's most notorious prisons even before photographs of US soldiers abusing prisoners spread around the world, prompting calls for its closure.

The 280-acre Abu Ghraib prison, a jumble of top-security jail houses and low-risk tent cities, was one of the world's most notorious prisons even before photographs of US soldiers abusing prisoners spread around the world, prompting calls for its closure.

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Under Saddam Hussein, Abu Ghraib's crooked concrete block walls and jagged watchtowers corralled as many as 15,000 prisoners at a time, many of whom were tortured and executed.

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Under the US Army, Abu Ghraib's population peaked at around 7,000 prisoners, with common criminals housed separately from suspected guerrillas and their supporters.

The stark penitentiary is perhaps Iraq's most visible symbol of brutality, sitting amid languid palm groves and farms just north of the main highway between Baghdad and Fallujah.

Now, some US Congress members say it should be demolished. The Senate on Thursday debated a nonbinding resolution saying the destruction of the facility would be "as a symbolic gesture that the American people will not tolerate the past and current mistreatment of prisoners."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday that any decision to demolish the prison is best left for the Iraqi interim government expected to take power June 30.

"From my standpoint, I think it's not a bad idea but I think it's really up to the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

British contractors built the penitentiary in the 1960s, cleaving it into five compounds and surrounding it by more than four kilometers (2.5 miles) of walls. The narrow jail cells that house one or two inmates under the Americans imprisoned as many as 40 at a time under Saddam, according to a prison history compiled by consultancy GlobalSecurity.Org.

As many as 4,000 prisoners were executed at Abu Ghraib in 1984, and more than 100 were executed February and March of 2000. Iraqi authorities executed a further 23 political prisoners there in October 2001, according to GlobalSecurity.Org.

The US Army and Central Intelligence Agency are investigating the deaths of 11 Iraqi prisoners in US custody, some of whom were held at Abu Ghraib and shot while rioting or trying to escape, according to a report written by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, an Army investigator ordered to look into abuses at the prison. Since the Americans took over the lockup, most inmates have been shifted to eight dusty camps, where rows of tents inside a fenced perimeter form motley villages of 500 men or more. On Wednesday, a crowd of a hundred or more prisoners - dressed in traditional dishdasha robes or sport coats and slacks- gathered at the fence barrier to shout protests about their conditions at a group of journalists touring the prison.

Workers nearby could be seen erecting chain-link fence and razor wire for a new section called Camp Avalanche, where each tent will be individually fenced in, preventing prisoners from separate tents from congregating.

Those who bide their time inside the cellblocks live in Alcatraz-like tiers of concrete cells with steel jail doors. On Wednesday, the screams of five women prisoners interrupted a journalists' tour of the cellblock where the depraved photographs of naked inmates were taken last fall.

Abu Ghraib also houses one of Iraq's chief intelligence-gathering centers, with the Army's
entire 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion dedicated to plying prisoners for information on the anti-US resistance. Interrogators working for the CIA and private companies also question inmates in Abu Ghraib's two plywood interrogation shacks, each lined with 12 interview booths. Hundreds of US soldiers - guards, interrogators and supply personnel - also live inside the prison in one of the bleakest deployments in Iraq.
Most of the soldiers live inside white trailers, each sprouting a satellite dish antenna and skirted by chest-high barriers of sandbags.

For much of their deployment, soldiers from the Army's 320th Military Police Battalion and 325th Military Intelligence Battalion, who lived at the prison until spring, had no mess hall, no post convenience store or barbershop, the Taguba report says. Soldiers and prisoners mark time by the regular barrages of rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells that plague Abu Ghraib. On April 21, a barrage of 28 mortar rounds killed 22 prisoners and wounded 91. All but a couple of the 10 patients seen in the hospital on Wednesday were prisoners injured in that barrage. One man could be seen cradling a stump of an arm, the lower portion of which had been wounded and amputated.

"In a matter of 45 minutes we had 125 patients," said 1st Sgt. David Janney, a medic with an Army surgical team. Now, makeshift concrete bunkers for mortar attacks are scattered around the prison.

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