Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
by Joel Wendland
May 4, 2004

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"Liberation" under the Bush administration is looking more and more like life under Saddam Hussein. Naďve claims of bringing democracy and freedom are being silenced by the realities and contradictions of military occupation and Bush administration hegemony over the transition in Iraq. Many of the old Ba’athist faces are returning to the military and the government. Now Hussein’s prison industrial complex and its methods of "justice" seem to be returning as well.

After being overrun, nearly demolished, and looted by local residents in the aftermath of the collapse of the Hussein regime, Abu Ghraib prison was rebuilt in the summer of 2003 by U.S. taxpayer-financed construction contractors, the 94th Engineer Battalion and the 130th Engineer Brigade. Abu Ghraib, located about 20 miles south of Baghdad, is the notorious prison complex at which the Hussein regime, according to a report by GlobalSecurity.org, "oversaw the torture and execution of thousands of political prisoners." More recently, Abu Ghraib reentered the public discourse as the site of atrocities committed by U.S. military police personnel as revealed by CBS and the release of numerous pictures showing torture inflicted on Iraqi prisoners.

Originally built in the 1960s by British contractors, Abu Ghraib covered 280 acres with 5 compounds and 24 guard towers. According to GlobalSecurity.org, "cells measured approximately 4 meters by 4 meters and held an average of 40 persons." By all accounts Abu Ghraib was a site of mass atrocities aimed at political activists deemed a threat to the state by the Hussein regime. It housed and eventually executed thousands who participated in the brutally repressed 1991 postwar uprising.

As many as 4,000 prisoners were executed at Abu Ghraib Prison in 1984, the year the Reagan administration, through its special envoy to Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, reestablished friendly relations and military and economic support for the Hussein regime. Reports from human rights groups indicate that as many as 15,000 persons were held in Abu Ghraib in 2001. The Center for Human Rights, an underground arm of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), frequently published reports that showed many thousands have been held without charges or trial, under torture and subject to arbitrary mass killings, sometimes referred to as "Prisons Cleanup." The Center repeatedly called on international human rights organizations to intervene. Some unconfirmed reports claim that mass graves of victims of the Hussein regime were found in or near the prison complex after the collapse of the regime.

In October 2002 in an effort to stem the drive for unilateral war by the U.S., the Iraqi government declared an amnesty and released a reported 13,000 people. Family members of the imprisoned rioted at the gates of Abu Ghraib when prisoners were not released quickly enough. As it became clear that the amnesty hadn’t and wouldn’t slow the drive for war, the Iraqi government reincarcerated many thousands of those released.

In May of 2003, after the Bush administration declared an end to the military campaign in Iraq, hundreds of Iraqis were rounded up by U.S. military and mercenary personnel and reincarcerated in camps near the old Abu Ghraib compound. It soon became clear to U.S. military authorities that they needed a large facility to hold prisoners captured in continuing military operations (despite the Bush declaration). U.S. authorities, according to an AP story in July of 2003, said that "Abu Ghraib is the only suitable place to put high security prisoners as U.S.-led forces try to end the growing crime wave in Iraq." At that point, according to the now notorious General Karpinksi, the U.S. held "3,000-4,000 prisoners in 30 prisons and camps across the country."

When local residents, most of whom were happy to see the prison closed, found out last summer that the U.S. military intended to re-open the prison and to fill it with criminals held under the Hussein regime and with those detained during the war and its aftermath, they expressed grave concern. "They’ve got people in there now?" asked Ala Hussein. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations had accused the U.S. government of "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of the prisoners held at Abu Ghraib. Allegations ranged from the lack of representation, being held without charges or trial, the denial of the right to see family members.

These conditions and worse were confirmed by an internal report written by Pentagon investigators that described "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses," according to a New Yorker magazine story recently. Eyewitness accounts of chemical torture, beatings, sexual assault and rape, and killings were detailed in the military report. In fact, the "military police at the prison were urged by Army military officers and C.I.A. agents" to condition the prisoners through torture to be more pliable to interrogation. Apparently these instructions overrode the training every new recruit into the service receives pertaining to the rules of the treatment of prisoners, let alone the much more intense training military police receive.

A statement released on May 2 by the Center for Human Rights (ICP) condemned the atrocities committed by U.S. military forces along with the growing number of terrorist acts. The Iraqi people are, the Center stated, "looking forward to a dignified life free of any oppression, whether by foreign occupiers, repressive rulers or extremist groups using terror as means to achieve their heinous objectives." The statement demanded "a just, fair and independent investigation of the violations, which have been exposed, putting an end to them, and providing legal guarantees for detainees." It called upon the UN to provide "an effective and consistent supervision of the conditions of human rights (in Iraq) during the transitional period, and to support Iraqi people’s legitimate struggle to regain fully their national sovereignty and achieve a democratic regime which respects the values of human rights, justice, and law."

As more revelations about torture surface and various means of enforcing an illegal occupation resulting from an illegal war come to light, the credibility of the Bush administration and its war has sunk to an all new low in the eyes of the Iraqi people and the eyes of the world. Widespread international condemnation of these atrocities are already being pronounced. It may be too early to tell if these criminal acts will sound the death knell of U.S. hegemony over the occupation of Iraq, but it is clear that the Bush administration’s legitimacy has evaporated.

Joel Wendland is a member of UAW Local 1981 (National Writers Union), the managing editor of Political Affairs (http://www.politicalaffairs.net),  and writes ClassWarNotes (http://classwarnotes.blogspot.com).

Other Articles by Joel Wendland

* Bush and Armageddon
* The UN, Iraq and the Bush Administration