ABU GHRAIB, Iraq—The sexual humiliation of Iraqi detainees shown in disturbing photos apparently wasn't the only corruption at Abu Ghraib prison under the watch of overwhelmed, poorly trained American military police.
The prison also became the site of an extortion racket in which an Iraqi translator collected hundreds of dollars from families begging for visits with loved ones inside, family members told Knight Ridder.
To desperate families who spent days camped outside Abu Ghraib, the man they call "Abdu" was an expensive link to their loved ones. For $200 or a couple of sheep, Abdu arranged unauthorized meetings between families and detainees, according to prisoner-rights advocates, detainees' relatives and Abdu's neighbors.
Anxious for word on detainees, families would track down Abdu at his home in Ghaziliyah, a small town just west of Baghdad. Each night at sunset, carloads of Iraqis jam the narrow alley in front of his red-trimmed gate and wait for him to come home from work to start negotiations.
"Everybody knows about his thieving, so I have no problem talking about it," said Mohamed Ali, 28, who sells sodas to Iraqis waiting behind razor wire in the heat. "Abdu is powerful, the Americans trust him and the people are willing to pay anything."
Abdu apparently had access to a computer with a list of detainee numbers and scheduled visiting times. Families said he would scan the list of detainees already released from jail and give their appointments to the people who paid him instead of canceling the slots.
Other detainees' relatives said he coaxed guards into allowing visits for families who pressed cash into his hands. He only accepted dollars, they said.
The bribery that flourished in the prison's muddled visitation program is just another example of how corruption in Abu Ghraib undercut America's moral authority and crushed Iraqi confidence in their occupiers' plans to reshape the nation's justice system.
Guards outside Abu Ghraib wouldn't answer questions about Abdu and refused to allow a reporter inside to seek comment from superiors. In general, the coalition doesn't release names or other information on Iraqi staff because they are frequent targets of attack.
Abdu's real first name is Abdul Rahman, but his Iraqi associates wouldn't divulge his last name for fear of retaliation. The man, described as a middle-aged former soldier from the old Iraqi regime, hasn't shown up for work in the past two days, they said.
Meanwhile, work continued on an overhaul of visitation facilities that prison staff said would allow families inside up to twice a month, instead of the usual once in six to nine months.
"Right now, all visits are under military control, and there will be no bribes," Lt. Col. Craig Essick, a senior military police officer, vowed to reporters on a tour of Abu Ghraib earlier this week.
Even if Abdu has been removed, his reputation remains a symbol of how the prison ran under American oversight.
Iraqis learned that pleading with American guards for information on their locked-up relatives led nowhere. Instead, they sought out Abdu.
Even on Thursday, with a new regime supposedly in place at the prison and vows of reform from American officials, family members hoped to find Abdu. Some said they'd finally scraped together enough money to pay him for a visit. Others said they'd forked over their savings, but he didn't deliver.
"There are lots of people you can pay for visits, but one is the best," said Sheik Talib Ali Afat, who carried a coalition-issued card designating him as part of a council of prominent tribesmen. "It's been eight months, and I still haven't seen my brother. So this time we're looking for the translator named Abdu. We heard he can fix everything for $200."
Rather than looking forward to the coalition's promises of an improved visitation system, families of prisoners said they're worried that Abdu would be swept away as order is brought to Abu Ghraib.
"If I could snatch one in my hands, I would crush him," said Ibtisam Hussein, a 49-year-old housewife waiting to visit her brother, as she watched U.S. soldiers in Humvees ride out the prison gates. "Without Abdu, we would deal with them? Never."
On Wednesday afternoon, a burly, shirtless man in shorts answered the door at Abdu's house and said Abdu was home. He then went back in the house and returned with a different answer: "No, he's not here." The gate swung shut.
Neighbors described with pride how Abdu thwarted Americans within their system. One young man said he was so used to people asking him for directions to Abdu's house that now he simply points when strangers stop. But he walked away quickly when asked about his friend's fees.
"Look, he's helping people," he said over his shoulder. "Don't ask too many questions."
(Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRISONS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):