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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
Abu Ghraib: Dark stain on Iraq's past
By Martin Asser
BBC News

US troops in Abu Ghraib, 22 April 2003 (Photo: BBC/Martin Asser)
US troops inspect a mass grave after taking control of Abu Ghraib in April 2003
Abu Ghraib prison lurks behind high walls and brooding watchtowers on the main highway west of Baghdad.

A square kilometre of hell during Saddam Hussein's horrific rule, it has retained some of its malevolence since US forces took over the facility, two weeks after toppling the Iraqi regime.

The huge prison complex was built by Western contractors in the 1960s.

The size of a small town, the area was divided into five separate walled compounds for different types of prisoners.

By the fall of the regime in 2003 these compounds were designated for foreign prisoners, long sentences, short sentences, capital crimes and "special" crimes.

I saw three guards beat a man to death with sticks and cables. When they got tired, the guards would switch with other guards
Yehiye Ahmed
But there is little doubt that the Baathist regime used it as a vast holding tank for enemies and "undesirables", who were incarcerated, tortured and executed at the leisure of Saddam's security enforcers.

In contrast to the US occupation, there are no Saddam-era photographs from inside Abu Ghraib - but human rights agencies have numerous accounts of the violations witnessed there.

Amnesty International reports give some idea of the scale of the brutality - though researchers admit to being unable to provide a full picture because of the regime's secrecy.

  • 1994 - More than 150 detainees executed over two days in January
  • 1996 - Hundreds of opposition group members executed in November
    Click here for a satellite image of the Abu Ghraib prison (51K)

  • 1998 - 60 people executed in June, mostly detainees from 1991 Shia uprising
  • 1999 - At least 100 prisoners executed on 12 October
  • 2001 - 23 political prisoners, mainly Shia Muslims, executed in October

In addition to the mass executions, detainees were subjected to extreme torture - including the use of electric shocks, drills and lighted cigarettes on the body; the extraction of fingernails, beatings, mock executions and threats to rape detainees' relatives.

Local resident Yehiye Ahmed was quoted in April 2003 recalling the constant sound of prisoners' screams over the prison walls. He said he witnessed atrocities when he entered the compound to sell sandwiches and cigarettes.

"I saw three guards beat a man to death with sticks and cables. When they got tired, the guards would switch with other guards. I could only watch for a minute without getting caught, but I heard the screams, and it went on for an hour," he told the US publication Newsweek.

Bizarre decoration

It is reported that about 15,000 detainees were held at Abu Ghraib, most of them kept in row-upon-row of one- or two-storey cellblocks.

Mural at Abu Ghraib jail (Photo: BBC/Martin Asser)
Prison mural showing Palestinians celebrating as Saddam decapitates "Zionist snake"
Each block was as spartan as could be expected, with a dining room, prayer room, exercise area and rudimentary washing facilities.

The cells were horribly overcrowded, with up to 40 people in a space four metres by four.

The only decoration to break the drab oppressiveness of the surroundings was the bizarre adulatory portraits of Saddam Hussein and inscriptions of his "words of wisdom".

Pictures showed him liberating Palestine and benevolently presiding over grandiose infrastructure projects in Iraq, while the inscriptions urged prisoners to maintain hygiene and be loyal to the Arab nation.

Perhaps the most bitterly ironic image, given the benighted nature of his regime, was the monumental portrait at the main gate.

A smiling Saddam in business suit and Islamic architectural backdrop subtitled: "There is no life without the Sun and no dignity without Saddam".

New regime

By chance, while reporting for BBC News Online, I was at Abu Ghraib on 22 April 2003, the very day that US military police arrived to take over the facility after the fall of the regime.

It had been only lightly looted, vandalism mainly, and the MPs - reservists led by a colonel from Florida - were there to secure the location "as a possible centre for operations".

Section for Abu Ghraib prisoners at Karkh Islamic Cemetery (photo: BBC/Martin Asser)
Hundreds of victims of Abu Ghraib were buried in numbered graves at a nearby cemetery
Neither the colonel nor I had any idea that this little-known remnant of an ugly past was destined to become one of the most vivid and memorable locations of the "new" Iraq.

The American troops knew neither the name nor the past function of the set of map co-ordinates they had been given. I remember wondering whether they weren't sending the wrong message to Iraqis by installing themselves in the very heart of the darkness of Saddam's regime.

To underline the point, as the MPs fanned out through compound, we stumbled across the remains of probably the last victims of Saddam's Abu Ghraib nightmare.

Near the foreigners' section there was a half-buried, three-week old corpse - one of about 20 inmates apparently shot at the prison as the regime teetered on the brink of collapse.

Almost farcically, the commanding officer declared the site a "crime scene" and ordered the arrest of half a dozen local civilian police who had been sent by their commander to liaise with the US soldiers.

US abuses

In the months that followed, Abu Ghraib jail has been re-designated as the Baghdad Central Detention Center, now holding up to 5,000 Iraqis detained by US forces for a variety of offences.

Until recently, detainees were mainly kept in two tented areas - camps Vigilant and Ganci. These were replaced in May 2004 by Camp Avalanche, built on concrete to reduce the dust problem.

Abu Ghraib abuse picture (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)
Under the dictator Abu Ghraib was a symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops
George W Bush

There is also the Hard Site, the Americans' name for the old cellblock complexes refurbished to US military specifications.

It is here that troublesome inmates and more serious cases are sent, and where by all accounts the infamous abuses took place and photographs taken.

Haydar Sabbar Abed has identified himself as one of the victims of US torture.

He told the BBC he was arrested for not carrying his ID card and he was taken to Abu Ghraib's Hard Site after having a fight with an Iraqi prison employee in one of the tent camps.

"They cut off our clothes and... told us to masturbate towards this female soldier. But we didn't agree to do it, so they beat us," he said.

"They made us act like dogs, putting leashes around our necks. They'd whistle and we'd have to bark like dogs. We thought they were going to kill us".

Apparently, an intrinsic part of the abuse was to take photographs of the humiliated prisoners, which is how the scandal has come to light.

The coalition has put the abuse down to the work of a "few bad apples" who do not represent the US army.

Critics say the prison guards must have been acting on higher authority and claim it was a routine used to soften up prisoners for interrogation, but this has been denied by the coalition.

Now, as Washington struggles to patch up its battered policies in Iraq after the prison scandal and as the anti-US insurgency continues unabated, President George W Bush has promised to demolish Abu Ghraib "as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning".

The announcement drew enthusiastic applause from the assembled top brass at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. But many Iraqis have spent the last year wondering why Abu Ghraib wasn't torn down long ago.

We asked if you thought Abu Ghraib should be closed and demolished?

Your comments:

It probably should be torn down, albeit a little late. At this point it's just a ploy by the president. I think that the president is now on a mission of damage control. It appears that the recent events there will yet again be covered up by the US government whose official comment anytime anything happens is "we didn't do it", "it wasn't us". As bad as it was, it's a good thing that pictures were taken so that my government could not say yet again, it's just a rumour.
Brian M, USA, WA

It should be kept as a reminder of America's double talk
Astra Chang, Trinidad

Abu Ghraib is a potent reminder of what can happen when people dehumanize and hate one another. I do not believe for a second that the US soldiers were acting independently, and it should be kept as a reminder of America's double talk. Why should I believe anything they now say?
Astra Chang, Trinidad, West Indies

I think the Abu Ghraib should be closed down but preserved so that this horrendous history of maltreatment and their victims will not be forgotten. Gas chambers by the Nazis and the site of Hiroshima nuclear bombing are preserved for these purposes, and hopefully the site of Abu Ghraib will continue to remind people that violence resolves nothing.
Miwa, Chicago, US

No, not demolished, for to demolish is to forget. Abu Ghraib should be severely dismantled, like the castles of England Cromwell "slighted," so that it cannot be used as a prison again. But part of it must be saved as a warning to ourselves and to future generations. Don't pave over a symbol of shame for Iraqis and Americans alike. Even so, I don't expect the US administration to promote the memory of its own mistakes.
Clinton Crowley, Fort Worth, Texas, US

Abu Ghraib should definitely be shut down because it was a symbol of Saddam's tyranny. By using Abu Ghraib, the US has also unfortunately tied itself to that prison's dark legacy.
Omair Saadat, Stanford, CA, USA

Abu Ghraib prison is an icon of cruelty against the humanity whether it is under USA or Saddam. Why somebody need a prison wall when the whole country is a prison - only the prison guards has changed.
Hussain Chirathodi, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

This land should be left barren
Bo Arnold, Columbus

Yes! This prison and all of the prisoner/human rights abuses that it has stood for should be demolished. This land should be left barren to finally give the tortured souls a chance to seek their peace.
Bo Arnold, Columbus, USA

My first thought was to definitely destroy the prison, erase it from history. But then I thought of the concentration camps. We cannot erase history. Forever this prison will be a symbol of Saddam's regime and now it is also a symbol of the torture at the hands of the American soldiers. It should be preserved and memorialized so that we can visit with our kids and show them how horrible human beings can be to one another.
Carrie, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

It should be transformed into a mausoleum for those who perished under tyranny everywhere for generations to come.
Shakib Ahsan, Oklahoma

No! It should not be torn down. It should be made a memorial to the atrocities of both Saddam Hussein, the US and UK Army.
Rakesh Jain, Edison, USA

No I do not think it should be demolished, especially if it is to make way to a new prison. Why spend money to remove a jail just to erect a new one when that same money could be used else where... say in opening up a new school. A prison is meant for criminals. Abu Ghraib housed many innocents. Maybe if it is used for what it was built for people would not object. But it is dumb to think that destroying it and erecting a new one would some how make the memories all better.
Rau, India

The BBC's Clive Myrie
"The speech didn't deliver"


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