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US Military Describes Steps to Improve Conditions in  Abu Ghraib Prison - 2004-05-18

On Wednesday, the U.S. military in Baghdad will begin the first in a series of military trials, or courts martial, of soldiers who are charged with abusing Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Spread out over several square kilometers in the desert west of Baghdad, Abu Ghraib prison once housed thousands of inmates, including opponents of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Shortly after U.S. forces toppled Saddam and took control of Baghdad 13 months ago, the U.S. military began using the facility to hold common criminals, as well as Iraqis suspected of involvement in attacks against coalition forces.

On Monday, the U.S. military allowed journalists to visit the prison, which is at the center of a scandal over the abuse of some Iraqi prisoners at the facility.

So far, 10 soldiers face criminal charges and seven officers have been reprimanded, effectively ending their military careers. President Bush also apologized to the Iraqi people.

Commanders at Abu Ghraib outlined changes that have been implemented to improve living conditions for about 3,500 prisoners.

In one corner of Abu Ghraib, an Army doctor, Colonel Mike Oddi, oversees a new hospital that opened two months ago to provide healthcare for everyone at the prison. Previously, Abu Ghraib only had poorly-equipped first aid stations to care for thousands of people.

"We take care of both detainee patients, as well as soldier patients, and they all receive the same care," he said. "They are taken care of by the same healthcare professionals, our nurses and our medics."

Another area of the prison complex, a holding area where thousands of Iraqis have been housed in flimsy tents for months, is quickly being closed down.

Commanders say the prisoners are in the process of being moved to a new camp where they will sleep on cots and mattresses instead of wooden floors. The camp will soon have electricity to run fans and air conditioners installed in each tent.

Journalists were also shown a prison block where some of the alleged abuses occurred. Several prisoners could be seen behind bars in cells. But in keeping with the Geneva Conventions, which set strict controls on the treatment of prisoners, they could not be interviewed.

U.S. Army Major General Geoffrey Miller was appointed last month to oversee U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. He says he understands the public outrage about what took place here and is determined to make sure that no abuse ever takes place again at Abu Ghraib or at any of the other detention centers in Iraq.

"I have spent the last 30 days talking to virtually every leader and every soldier in this organization about what our standards are and how we do business," said General Miller. "And I told them, 'Do nothing you are ashamed of. Do nothing that will not make America proud.'"

The appointment of General Miller to oversee Abu Ghraib has not been without controversy.

He spent more than a year as the warden of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of al-Qaida terrorist suspects are being held.

In addition, General Miller visited Iraq last year and made several recommendations on how to operate Iraq's military prison system.

A recent U.S. Army internal report says the general recommended training a guard force that would take a more active role in extracting information from detainees. General Miller denies that he ever made such a recommendation.

He says he is the one who recently convinced the U.S. commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, that the military should stop using some techniques meant to pressure detainees to provide information.

"I reviewed all the techniques that were currently approved and then I recommended he consider removing some of the more aggressive techniques - dietary manipulation, for example, stress positions. And there were four other techniques that I recommended that General Sanchez consider taking out of the authorized inventory," he said.

General Miller says he also plans to soon release about 2,000 prisoners being held at Abu Ghraib, to reduce the number of inmates to about 1,500.

Army investigators have cited overcrowding at Abu Ghraib, where inmates sometimes outnumbered guards by several-hundred to one, as having contributed to the abusive atmosphere.