TIKRIT, Iraq—Scores of prisoners released from the controversial Abu Ghraib prison Tuesday were forced to take a winding, nearly five-hour journey through central Iraq on three hot, rickety buses escorted by U.S. military Humvees before being deposited without explanation in the middle of a gravel quarry near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
It was unclear why the detainees, at least a hundred of them, were dropped off at the remote location 120 miles north of Baghdad. Some got rides home from relatives who had frantically followed the buses in their vehicles. Others climbed into the back of a dump truck or returned to their buses and got a ride back to Baghdad. A few were still milling about on the dirt road where they were released when a reporter and photographer left the scene.
The bizarre ordeal for the detainees came as the U.S. military continues to reel from the prisoner-abuse scandal that erupted last week. Photographs showed Iraqis at Abu Ghraib being subjected to various humiliations, including being stripped naked and forced to simulate sex acts.
U.S. military officials didn't respond to several requests for comment about the way detainees were released Tuesday. Soldiers who escorted the convoy said briefly that there was some kind of mix-up, then they quickly drove away.
One of the Iraqi bus drivers said angrily as he was driving away: "They are playing with their nerves. They are trying to destroy them. This is not the first time."
However, some detainees said they hadn't been mistreated while in Abu Ghraib, which was notorious for torture under the former Saddam Hussein regime.
"I've been treated well," said Jassim Hamoudy, 41, who lives 80 miles south of Tikrit and spent four months at the prison.
When asked if he saw other prisoners being abused, Hamoudy replied, "I did not see anything."
Ayad Ibrahim, 30, of Fallujah, was hoping to find his brother, Mohammed, 20, on one of the buses. Ibrahim said he and his brother were detained about a month ago.
Rather than complain about Abu Ghraib, he said they were mistreated when they were held initially at a military base.
"The first two days we weren't allowed to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom," Ibrahim said. "On the third day we were transferred to Abu Ghraib prison, where we were treated much better."
Nonetheless, the pictures from Abu Ghraib have drawn intense worldwide condemnation and have shaken the U.S.-led coalition's occupation. Six military police officers face criminal charges while others have received severe reprimands.
An internal military report revealed in recent days asserts that the abuse of prisoners was widespread and systematic.
Shatha al Qureishi, 36, a Baghdad attorney, is representing dozens of detainees who are seeking reparations for mistreatment that allegedly occurred under the watch of coalition prison guards in Abu Ghraib. "The photos shown on TV confirmed what we had suspected," Qureishi said.
Qureishi, who has handled prisoner cases since June, said she had heard rumors of sexual assaults in the prison, but brushed off the allegations as exaggerated claims. Now she's not so sure.
"I heard about rape cases," she said, "but I told people ... why would the Americans do something like that to the prisoners? But after I saw these photos, I realized maybe people had the right to be angry with the Americans."
On Tuesday, most of the detainees appeared relieved to be out of custody. Some embraced relatives while others danced and chanted. One furiously tore up what appeared to be a glossy English-language brochure.
All were bound at the wrists during the journey, which started at the prison just west of Baghdad sometime before 10 a.m.
The three buses were escorted by three Humvees as they traveled first to Baghdad. As they entered the city, the convoy made a U-turn and then headed north. The buses were followed by nearly two dozen vehicles that move from side to side with turns and lane shifts.
About 60 miles north of Baghdad, near the town of Balad, the buses turned down a side road and entered a military base.
Outside the gate, Iraqis hoping to find relatives on the buses asked what was happening but were told only that the convoy was refueling. After about 15 minutes, an Iraqi guard suggested that family members drive to a second entrance where the convoy might emerge.
The Iraqis drove back to the main highway and waited at the turnoff leading to the other gate. There they could see if the convoy was coming from either direction.
Kamell Hassen, 52, of Samarra, said he was at the prison to inquire about when his brother, Thamer, 40, would be released, but couldn't get any information.
"I saw three buses getting out of the prison," he said. "I decided to follow the buses."
Hassen said coalition forces came to his house in December and took his brother away after beating him in front of his family.
He said after the pictures of the Abu Ghraib prisoners were aired last week, "all my family is getting crazy."
"This is a crime against humanity," he said. "This is a crime against Islam and other religions."
Though he didn't know if his brother was on any of the buses, he said he was willing to follow them "until midnight."
Suddenly the convoy appeared again on the main highway. The detainees waved from their windows as they rode by. The awaiting Iraqis scrambled into their vehicles to resume the mysterious pursuit.
The convoy eventually reached the outskirts of Tikrit and wound its way down some residential streets before crossing a bridge and driving onto a dirt road.
About a mile down the road the convoy stopped and, after a few moments of confusion, the prisoners were released around 2:30 p.m.
One detainee, who declined to give his name, asked, "Is this democracy?"
(Moran reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Baghdad, Iraq.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRISONERS