The Iraqi government has announced it will be re-opening the Abu Ghraib prison next month under a new name. The prison was closed in 2006 after a string of controversial incidents where Iraqi war prisoners were tortured and humiliated by American military personnel. Busho Ibrahim, Iraq’s deputy justice minister made the announcement last week and said the renovated facility will be renamed as Baghdad Central Prison. "We have named it Baghdad Central Prison because of its bad reputation as Abu Ghraib prison,” said Ibrahim, “not just because of what the Americans did there but also because of what the regime of Saddam has done.”
Located 32km out of the capital, Abu Ghraib means “place of ravens” in Arabic. The raven has long been considered a bird of ill omen and the prison was infamous in Iraq well before the Americans invaded. During the Saddam era the facility held thousands of inmates. The legal scholar Robert Alt noted in 2004 that it may have held as many as 400,000 people and was a place where Iraqis were detained for crimes that caused offence to the leader. He says it was a place where torture was the rule and not the exception; and a place that Iraqis feared worse than death itself. He quoted Abu Ghraib survivor Ala’a Abdul Hussien Hassan who said "I don’t believe that anybody can imagine what we’ve been through. We’ve been oppressed on all levels."
However it was its use in the post-Saddam era that made Abu Ghraib’s notoriety in the wider world. By the time that Alt wrote his piece about the Saddam era prison, US soldiers were already creating a new nightmare of oppression for its post-invasion inmates. When US forces arrived in Baghdad the previous April, Abu Ghraib was empty. Saddam released all the prisoners in one of last acts as dictator. US commanders on the ground were slow to adapt to the insurgency that erupted in the Summer and Autumn of 2003. As they began detaining thousands of Iraqis suspected of involvement, the problem of what to doing with them quickly spiralled out of control.
Around the same time, evidence began to emerge of torture at the facility. The CBS program 60 Minutes broadcast pictures of male and female US soldiers grinning and pointing at the genitals of naked prisoners. Others showed a naked and hooded inmate placed on a box with wires attached to his body. There were allegations of sexual abuses and attacks by dogs. The authorities quickly acted to court martial the offenders and tried to limit the damage by calling them “bad apples”. Bush apologised for “the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners and..their families” but refused calls to sack Defence Secretary Rumsfeld.
But the politicians were the real culprits. Before the war General Eric K Shinseki estimated that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq. Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz called this estimate “wildly off the mark”. The Pentagon expected things to calm down and planned for just 100,000 troops. A spokesman for Shinseki (a former commander of the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia) said simply: "He was asked a question and he responded with his best military judgement."
Of course, time proved Shinseki's best military judgement right and Wolfowitz “wildly wrong”. This became apparent even in the early days of occupation. The army committee of inquiry found that the brigade in charge of Abu Ghraib was inadequately trained for its mission. Morale was also low. Most soldiers expected to go home after the occupation of Baghdad and became demoralised when he had to stay on to guard an influx of thousands of detainees. It didn’t help that heavy fighting took place in and around Abu Ghraib during the early years of the US invasion in Iraq. The prison was overcrowded, under-resourced and under continuous attack.
But while the chaotic conditions allowed corrupt and unsupervised behaviour to thrive, once again in it was the directive of politicians that lay at the heart of what went wrong. Back in 2002, President Bush issued a memorandum stating that the Geneva Convention did not apply to Al-Qaeda and that Taliban combatants were also not entitled to prisoner of war status. This new category of “unlawful combatants” would have far-reaching consequences even though it was never intended to apply to Iraq.
The inquiry noted that military intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib had previously worked in Afghanistan and Guantanamo and believed the presidential order gave them permission to apply additional interrogation techniques. The abuses, the final report of the inquiry found, “would have been avoided with proper training, leadership and oversight”.
After the report was issued, the Americans moved to shut down the facility. President Bush announced in May 2004 said Abu Ghraib would be destroyed and replaced by” the construction of a modern, maximum security prison.” However the Iraqis opposed this plan and the Americans began gradually moving prisoners to Camp Bucca near the Kuwait border. By 2006 it was emptied of detainees and the US handed the facility over to the Iraqi government. Now the country’s deputy justice minister Ibrahim says the prison will house 3,500 inmates when it reopens in mid-February and will have a capacity for at least 15,000 by the end of this year. "This prison will solve many problems for us - huge problems," he said. The ghosts of the place of ravens may not agree.