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Abu Ghraib no longer houses any prisoners, Iraqi officials say

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The infamous prison at Abu Ghraib, scene of an abuse scandal that tarnished the United States' reputation worldwide and helped to fuel the growth of Iraq's insurgency, is now empty, Iraqi government officials have told McClatchy Newspapers.

The officials said U.S. authorities finished moving about 3,600 prisoners from the prison in recent days. Most went to one of two U.S.-run detention centers—Camp Cropper, near Baghdad International Airport, and Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr in southern Iraq. Some were released, according to one official, who works for the Ministry of Human Rights.

Justice Minister Hashem al Shebli confirmed Saturday that the prison is now vacant and that Iraqi army troops have been assigned to help guard the facility, which frequently has been the target of insurgent mortar fire.

Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a U.S. military spokesman for Detainee Operations, acknowledged that the United States had been moving prisoners, but wouldn't say if the task had been completed. "This transfer will allow us to consolidate our effort at fewer sites and improve the conditions for both the coalition guards and the detainees," he said.

The emptying of the prison marks a milestone for the huge stone structure whose name has long been synonymous with torture, first under the regime of Saddam Hussein, then under American occupation when photos surfaced in April 2004 of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners there.

The photos showed nude Iraqis being forced to lie on top of one another, led on leashes, and forced to masturbate in front of a leering female American soldier. Most famous was the image of a hooded Iraqi man standing on a box with wires hooked to his fingers. The man reportedly was told he'd be electrocuted if he fell off the box.

The photos led to an investigation that uncovered widespread abuse, including allegations that U.S. troops beat and threatened prisoners, sodomized them with objects, and used dogs to intimidate and attack them.

Eventually seven low-level soldiers were convicted of various charges, and the reserve general in charge of the facility was demoted and dismissed. A lieutenant colonel who oversaw the interrogation center was charged in the case only this past April, two years after the scandal broke.

But the Abu Ghraib abuse's greatest impact was no doubt symbolic. Many analysts believe the scandal helped draw recruits to Iraq's anti-American insurgency and helped fuel anti-American sentiment among Muslims throughout the world.

In June, Iraqi officials moved their 3,800 prisoners—mostly those convicted in Iraqi court—and placed them in prisons throughout the capital, Justice Minister Shebli said.

What happens next is unclear. U.S. authorities are securing the compound, several Iraqi officials said, and will eventually transfer it to Iraqi forces. Iraqi officials said that could be months away. None of the Iraqis would speak for the record because no official announcement has been made.

The Iraqi government is debating what to do then. Some believe the facility should be turned into a museum that remembers those who suffered there while others believe it should be torn down. Others rejected that, saying the government cannot afford to build a new prison.

Shebli said he does not believe the Iraqi government is prepared to use Abu Ghraib to hold prisoners without U.S. help. "We will take more courses on how to deal with prisoners in a more humane way," he said.

Ali Debaugh, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, said the government still hasn't decided what it will do with the prison and does not have a timeline for when it will.

Built in the 1960s by British contractors, the facility began as a normal prison, designed to hold a few thousand. But during Saddam's regime, the facility's population ballooned to 50,000. In some areas of the facility, there were torture chambers and Saddam and his sons were said to regale in watching the tortured death of some of their more hated citizens.

After the war, several mass graves were found at the site.

Abu Ghraib held several Iraqis who fought Saddam politically and now hold prominent positions in the government. Among them are Iraq's current Minister of Oil, Hussein al-Shahristani and Mahmoud Mashadani, the speaker of the parliament.

Months before the start of the war, Saddam Hussein released prisoners from Abu Ghraib, which many took as a tactical move to create havoc in the immediate post-war period.

Mashadani was among them. During an interview earlier this year with McClatchy Newspapers, Mashadani described huddling around a small radio with his fellow inmates during his time in jail, learning that U.S. forces could come to Iraq.

Under U.S. control, the facility held as many as 15,000 inmates. And the prison has never shaken its reputation from the 2004 scandal, despite major reforms by U.S. officials.

Younis al Kaidy, 36, who was released from Abu Ghraib two weeks ago after staying for eight months, said that facility faced constant mortar attacks. He said prisoners should welcome the move to Camp Cropper because it has a better reputation.

"A black coffin would be better than Abu Ghraib," he said.

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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