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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Jail gives up gruesome secrets

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online in Iraq

It was meant to be a straightforward job: check out one of Saddam Hussein's prisons and try to find relatives of some of the thousands of Iraqis who have gone missing during the dictator's brutal regime.

Abu Ghreib cells
An intimidating aura still prevails
Instead we found something a bit more disturbing than that.

Abu Ghraib prison, 30 kilometres (19 miles) west of Baghdad, was by all accounts one of the darkest places in Saddam's benighted realm.

It is a vast complex, nearly a kilometre in length on each side, with at least five different enclosures - including ones for condemned prisoners, for long sentences, short sentences, "special" crimes and for non-Iraqis.

By chance the day we visited, Tuesday, was the day that US forces had decided to check out Abu Ghraib as a possible centre for their operations.

A sensible choice perhaps, given the prison's high walls, wide open spaces and its intact buildings - maybe intact because the place still has an intimidating aura which means local people have not completely trashed it like other Baathist institutions.

The rest of the body lies under a blanket of earth, newspaper and cloth, like a kind of grotesque bed
But in their new surroundings the Americans are jumpy, and our arrival at the western gate of the complex is met by military police (MP) with weapons levelled at us, wary of any approaching vehicle.

"And what is the purpose of your visit here today, Sir?" asks one of the MPs, after I had approached on foot and told him I was a British journalist coming to view the prison.

Human remains

Questioning the troops, it becomes clear that none of them have the slightest idea of the nature of the place they have come to.

To them it is just a set of co-ordinates on the map, another objective on their inexorable march across this battered and bruised country.

A US soldier leads away an Iraqi prisoner
US troops are always on high alert, wary of possible attacks

I patiently tell the commanding officer, Colonel Ford, about the reputation Abu Ghraib had - "Abu what?" - in the days when Saddam Hussein's secret police could just whisk Iraqi citizens off to oblivion at the slightest hint of troublemaking.

However, I did not mention that half-an-hour earlier some Iraqis at the north gate had told us that people had come that day to collect human remains from the prison grounds, relatives of Saddam Hussein's "disappeared".

"Oh, okay, well, you can just wait in the shade for 30 minutes or so, our soldiers will have swept this location and then you can go about your business," says the short, square-jawed reservist colonel, a Florida police officer in civilian life.

Nearby are four green-uniformed Iraqi civilian policemen who had been sent to help the Americans secure the area.

They are a bit nonplussed at having their weapons confiscated by the Americans, after specifically being told to bring them.

But they do confirm the story about the human remains.

"Would it be possible for me to have a look round here," I ask Colonel Ford, pointing to a high-walled enclosure identified to me by the Iraqi policemen.

"I don't think that would be a problem, Sir, we've already checked that area. I'll send a couple of MPs with you."

Shocking discovery

We walk towards the enclosure, taking in the massive watchtowers, the mean looking wild dogs, and the recent-looking excavations at the foot of the five-metre (17-metre) high wall.

Human remains at the Abu Ghreib prison
The shocking discovery at the prison compound

Then the smell hits us, brought on a light breeze blowing from the west across the prison.

"I think that's just the smell of the stagnant water over there, Sir," says one of the military police when I mention it.

I don't demur, never before having smelt three-week-old human bodies left to rot under a few shovelfuls of dry earth.

But then walking around a low bank of earth I can no longer suspend my disbelief.

There on the ground - the flesh eaten away around the mouth, eyes and throat - is an exposed human head and neck.

The rest of the body lies under a blanket of earth, newspaper and cloth, like a kind of grotesque bed.

One of the military police shouts to the commanding officer: "Colonel Ford, Sir, I think you'd better come and have a look at this".

Unmarked graves

In the big picture of things, this unfortunate prisoner's fate hardly registers in the array of iniquities committed under Saddam Hussein's rule.

A few kilometres to the west lies the Karkh Islamic Cemetery which contains the graves of 994 Abu Ghraib prisoners, unidentified except for numbered metal markers, although some have no numbers and some graves not even a marker.

The prisoners' section has an eight-course breeze-block wall around it - to stop dogs digging up the earthen mounds, a cemetery employee tells us.

Karkh Islamic Cemetery
Karkh cemetery: Resting place for many prisoners

But it also serves to cordon off this wretched burial site from the rows of neat brick graves that stretch off into the distance.

An Egyptian gravedigger (who doesn't work in the prisoners' section) saw the bodies brought from Abu Ghraib by men in civilian clothes once or twice a week.

Some were buried in the traditional Islamic fashion, the body washed and placed on its side in a shroud, others were not.

"I don't know why the media keep coming here," the first employee says defensively.

"Most of them were just thieves and murderers who died or were executed at the prison. It's just normal, normal."

"Thieves and murderers?" snorts my driver as we leave the cemetery. "Every single one of those was a political prisoner. When a thief dies they give the body to the family."

'Target practice'

Back at the prison, the US soldiers have declared the north-west corner of the prison where we had found the body a "crime scene".

"From the smell and the number of other piles of earth, I'd say there's plenty more bodies there," says Colonel Ford.

US soldiers guard Iraqi policemen
Abu Ghreib: Run by security intelligence, not ordinary police

"What we're going do is take these people off - very gentle mind you - for questioning so we can find out what's been going on."

He nods towards the now-handcuffed Iraqi policemen whom I'd spoken to earlier, as well as a senior officer who'd subsequently arrived, and a driver accompanying him whose pick-up truck had a couple of AK-47 assault rifles on board.

The policemen try to explain to the Americans - via my Iraqi guide - that they know nothing of the bodies.

The enclosure in question - marked Section for Foreigners - had been under the jurisdiction of the Mukhabbarat, the security intelligence service, while they were just civilian police.

In fact, the person who did have a tale to tell was sitting in the shade 50 metres (60 yds) away, not cuffed, watching events apparently unnoticed by the soldiers.

"On the last days of the war we heard about nine or 10 shots coming from the Foreigners' Section," the man tells me.

He does not want to give his name but says he is an employee at the police station.

"The Mukhabbarat told our officers that they were doing target practice; the officers never questioned anything the Mukhabbarat told them."

Just then one of the military police approaches, gesturing to the man with a story to tell and saying "Okay, you can leave now, Sir," as he points to the north gate of the prison.

It is the same gate that we have to leave by too, past a giant billboard of the Iraqi leader with the caption: Without the sun there is no life, and without Saddam no dignity.

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