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The prison at Abu Ghraib was notorious for its treatment of those confined within its walls long before U.S. Army Private Lynndie England dragged a naked Iraqi prisoner around on a dog leash.
Located some nine miles west of Baghdad in the Abu Ghraib district, Iraqis steered clear of the huge prison complex where, for decades, political prisoners brought there would disappear, and only wails of torture could be heard through the metal bars that covered its high windows. Executions ran into the hundreds per year. Relatives coming to find even the bodies of their loved ones often left with nothing.
Now, after struggling to maintain order over a system that houses over two thousand detainees, the Iraqi government has announced it is closing Abu Ghraib’s doors and transferring its inmates to other prisons throughout the country.
A mass breakout orchestrated by Al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni fighters in 2013 led to the escape of hundreds of prisoners and a shootout that killed over 50 prisoners and members of the Iraqi security forces.
The prison’s location in the west of the capital, close to the western province of Anbar, which is currently in the throes of open rebellion against the central government in Baghdad, has made it difficult to control. An ongoing fight for turf between the government and Sunni rebels — who’ve already taken over the city of Fallujah and parts of the town of Ramadi — has altered Iraq’s security landscape and forced the government to abandon the prison complex.
“The ministry of justice announced the complete closure of Baghdad Central Prison, previously (known as) Abu Ghraib,” the ministry said in a statement online, according to Agence France-Presse. Justice minister Hassam al-Shammari was quoted as saying this was “part of precautionary measures related to the security of prisons,” and that Abu Ghraib was “in a hot area,” meaning a dangerous security environment.
Iraqis had controlled part of Abu Ghraib during the U.S. military occupation of the country. They were in charge of an area that housed ordinary criminals — those convicted of murder, rape, robbery and other crimes. Americans controlled a separate section that served as a military base and a place for security detainees.
In 2004, a scandal erupted when enlisted U.S. soldiers were investigated for abusing Iraqi detainees through physical and sexual torture. Leaked photographs from cellblock 1A and 1B showed prisoners hooded and nude, cowering beside prison dogs, forced into sexual positions and piled on top of each other. At least one was attached to wires and made to stand on a rickety box, allegedly told that were he to fall he’d be electrocuted.
The scandal debilitated U.S. efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people, further deteriorating any trust between the population and the coalition authority tasked with steering Iraq into a new democratic era. It provided grist for anti-American propaganda, notably by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In 2010, he penned a column for Inspiremagazine, in which he mentioned the “crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo … which shook the conscience of humanity.”
The prison had already carried a malevolent tint in the eyes of Iraqis before the U.S.-led military invasion. Under Saddam Hussein it became a symbol of his totalitarian rule. Political prisoners, mostly from the persecuted Shia majority, were routinely executed in the hundreds during his decades-long rule of the country. As U.S. military forces approached Baghdad, Hussein ordered a final round of executions. When U.S. forces came upon Abu Ghraib, they found the blindfolded bodies of prisoners in striped uniforms piled in rooms beside the hanging chambers, or lying in ditches inside the complex.
In the end, anyone suspected of being a spy wound up inside its walls. Anyone who possessed a Thuraya satellite phone, foreigners, Islamists, Kurds, all found themselves a threat to the government and hauled off to Abu Ghraib.
There was talk about having it razed. After the prisoner-abuse scandal leaked in 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush said he wanted Abu Ghraib destroyed.
“Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values,” Bush said in a May 2004 speech. “We will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning.”
While still standing, it’s not clear if Abu Ghraib, once closed, will ever re-open. A bastion of torture and a symbol of scandal, the prison has now assumed a new reputation: as a place Iraq’s newest leaders cannot control.
Jamie Tarabay lived and worked in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 during which time she reported on conditions inside Abu Ghraib, visiting the prison complex in 2004.