The Magazine

Of Prisons and Palaces

From the August 4 / August 11, 2003 issue: Notes from liberated Iraq.

Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Abu Gharib Prison, Iraq

I MAY BE THE FIRST PERSON in history to have been happy to be inside Abu Gharib prison. The facility, just west of Baghdad, was the heart of Saddam Hussein's torture apparatus. On this day, however, the temperature had reached above 120 degrees, and the sun was relentless. The prison at least provided some shade.

I came as one of six reporters accompanying a small delegation led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. We were halfway through a four-day tour of Iraq. With our base in Baghdad, we raced from city to village in a sweeping arc from the Shiite south to the Kurdish north. We returned most nights to the capital and slept in an outlying building on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein's opulent palaces--also named Abu Gharib.

The palace was built in 1999, as U.N. sanctions were bringing economic devastation to most of Iraq. The grounds extend for miles--it takes us 13 minutes to drive from the main palace to the exit--and feature several manmade lakes filled with water that looks artificially blue. Handrails lead down into the water from a patio overlooking the lakes. Outdoor showers are available in small stalls adjacent to the patio--or were. The palace today is without running water, a casualty of a stray American bomb. One building just down the road from the main palace was hit hard. There was intelligence that Uday Hussein had been hiding there, we're told--a report that at first sounds plausible but becomes less believable each time I hear it over the course of the trip. It seems every building damaged during the war was thought to have held Uday Hussein. But physical evidence of the war here is generally scarce.

Hanging from the ceiling in the foyer of the main palace is a massive chandelier, maybe 100 feet in diameter. The floors and most of the walls are marble. Most of the furnishings are gold or are painted to look like gold. One soldier calls the style "Saudi gaudy."

There could hardly be a greater contrast than with the prison of the same name. It sits surrounded by the vast and dry nothingness that is the terrain outside of Baghdad. The ground around the prison is littered with soda cans, plastic wrappings, pieces of paper, and razor wire.

The inside smells like fresh paint. American soldiers living and working here are repainting the walls of one wing. Although many coalition officials favored shutting the place down--the mere mention of its name can induce physical sickness among Iraqis--the country lacks another high-security detention center. So it's expected to operate for the next three years at least.

The soldiers have done a good job. But just down the hall from the wing they have fixed up are several stark reminders of the atrocities committed here. The two coalition officials guiding us through the facility take us first to one of its execution chambers. On the ceiling are two well-secured handles that look like the grips from a pommel horse. The rope is tied to these. Twelve feet below, two large square holes have been cut into the cement floor. And in a basement below, there is a wide berth for the vehicles used to remove the bodies.

Bill Irvine is one of those in charge of the prison. He is a slight, balding man with a pink complexion. His sing-song Irish accent seems incompatible with his words. "One of the former guards that I interviewed in recent weeks told me that on one particular day there were as many as 66 persons executed in this chamber. They had refrigeration and cooling rooms for 80 bodies at a time. And they carried out the executions on a Wednesday and a Sunday--very regularly on both those days. It was very seldom that there were no executions here."

The assembly-line killing that took place within these walls accounts for a far lower death toll than the 300,000 estimated to lie in the mass graves now being dug up at scores of sites around the country. Still, "as many as 30,000 were executed here in this prison," Irvine explains. "There are reports--unsubstantiated reports--but there are reports of at least 100,000 people killed in this prison."

The killing continued as the regime was on its way to extinction. "Even three days before the prison closed," Irvine says, "I am told that there were executions here."

The prison closed on October 10, 2002. Saddam Hussein issued a decree freeing nearly all of the common criminals--some 70,000 from Abu Ghirab alone--and some of his political prisoners. There are many things that might explain postwar looting and security problems. This is one of them.