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Coalition Forces Reopen Once-Feared Iraqi Prison - 2003-08-04


Coalition forces have re-opened a once much-feared prison on the outskirts of Baghdad to house both criminals and security detainees in Iraq. Military officials say they hope the newly renovated facility and better treatment of prisoners will help to dispel past horrors.

It's a long, gravelly stretch of road down to one of the most feared places outside of Baghdad. Once, just uttering the words "Abu Gharib prison" would invoke fear of terror in the hearts of Iraqis. That's because those who entered the huge jail facility, located 50 kilometers west of Baghdad, under Saddam Hussein' government rarely left it alive.

Coalition military officials say it was a hard choice, but in the end there were no other options but to take the prison, refurbish it, and rename it as Central Baghdad Prison. The first wing of the jail is set to open within two weeks.

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who is responsible for prisons in Iraq, said she hopes the facility will get a fresh start. "We cannot account for all the dark shadows that will be lingering over this place and that's exactly why we are calling it an interim facility. It was the facility with the largest capacity," she said.

General Karpinski says building a new facility would take two to three years. She said the military discussed the reopening of Abu Gharib with a lot of people, including relatives of those once held there. "They thought, they understood that it was better to get the criminal element off the streets into a facility like this that could house them than the other option which would be delaying arresting people until we could find an appropriate facility," she said.

Military officials say about 500 detainees are currently living in a dusty tent camp pitched on the grounds of the jail. Fewer than 100 of those are held for their alleged links to the former regime or on suspicion of taking part in attacks on coalition forces. There are a total of 300 to 400 such security detainees worldwide.

Military sources say a wall is being built to separate the execution chamber once used by Saddam to eliminate his opponents from the rest of the prison.

First Sergeant Daryl Keithly says the area will become a memorial and museum to those who perished there. The officer says many prisoners, such as Hassan Mouad who was executed on November 17, 1999, scribbled their names on the cells' walls in order to be remembered. "That was their last opportunity so that somebody would actually know what had happened to them. That they were there. Kind of like their last rites. Also there are other inscriptions," he said. "But it is mainly written on the wall by people who had given their names so that somebody would find them someday."

Coalition officials say the jail once held as many as 20,000 prisoners, and, on one day, up to 2,000 executions were carried out.

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