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
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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.

"Many of those prisoners were charged and imprisoned for very, very serious crimes," Irvine continues. "Especially in Baghdad, the military forces have been arresting people who were actually released here. So we believe that a high percentage of the people who were released are actually involved in criminality now in Baghdad." Many Iraqis who survived their sentences here have returned since their country was liberated on April 9.

As we walk down the hall towards the dining facility, now a makeshift sleeping room for hundreds of American soldiers, one Iraqi walking with us stops me and another American. We are not quite sure what he's doing with the group--perhaps he's a contractor or a former guard. He grabs the electrical wires hanging from the wall of one cell, applies them to his body, and shakes violently, as if being shocked.

The walls of the cafeteria are decorated with pictures and tributes to Saddam Hussein. Our interpreter translates: "All love and faith to our leader, Saddam Hussein." "Say yes, yes to leader Saddam Hussein." "There's no life without the sun, and no dignity without Saddam."

On one wall, accompanied by a 15-foot mural of Saddam wearing 1970s retro-porn sunglasses, is a mock prison identification card for Iraq.

Father: Saddam Hussein

Mother: Arab Nation

Title: Leader of Victory and Peace

Date of Birth: 17th of July

Type of Blood: Arab milk

Place of Birth: Under the Shade of a Palm Tree

Distinguishing Marks: The tattoo of sincerity

Profession: Knight of the Arab nation

Address: From the Gulf to the Ocean

Place of Birth: In the heart of every Arab citizen

Ideology: Socialist Baath Arab Party

Writer of this ID: The Arab nation

"The horror of this place and the kinds of things that went on here I think can help you understand why the fear of Saddam Hussein hasn't left this country, especially because people are convinced that he's still alive," said Wolfowitz after the tour.

Bill Irvine says plans are in place to make most of the prison a memorial. "It'll be a reminder for many, many years of what happened here."

ONE MIGHT EXPECT a visit to Abu Ghirab would stir reflections on the most profound matters--the nature of evil, the existence of God. Instead, I could not shake words I'd read in the Washington Post of July 15, 2003, the day before I'd left for Iraq. Reporting on the likelihood of stepped-up attacks on coalition forces on July 17, a national holiday under the previous regime, Kevin Sullivan wrote: "Although Iraq's new Governing Council's first official action was to abolish Hussein-era holidays, July 17 still stands for Saddam in a country deeply unsure if the military occupation is better than his dictatorship."

A country deeply unsure if the military occupation is better than his dictatorship. Could this be true? What about the question put so well in a headline over a column by Michael Kelly in that same newspaper just weeks before his untimely death: "Who Would Choose Tyranny?" Could it be that Iraqis might actually prefer despotism to freedom, so long as the despot was one of their own?

Judging from dozens of interviews with Iraqis, U.S. soldiers, and representatives of humanitarian and aid groups over the course of our trip, the answer is no. Most Iraqis are overjoyed about their liberation. The American troops I spoke with, even those from units that have suffered postwar casualties, said they have received a warm welcome from their hosts. But most surprising were the strong words of praise for postwar Iraq from NGO leaders. If even some of what this delegation heard is true, the reconstruction of Iraq is going much better than reports in the American media suggest.

In Najaf on July 19, Wolfowitz met with the new city council. In this Shiite holy city, as elsewhere throughout the country, Iraqis had a two-part message. "You have done tremendous things for Iraq," said Haydar al Mayalli, the interim governor. "You still have a heavy responsibility towards our country. You have commitments that must be filled to the Iraqi people. And we are grateful that you have opened the door to democracy and freedom."

A local sheikh spoke next. "By destroying the instruments of terrorism and the Baath party, the people of Najaf breathe in relief," he said. He listed infrastructure, electricity, water, and security as Najaf's most pressing needs, before reminding Wolfowitz of the stakes. "The world is watching you to see what you do."

Wolfowitz acknowledged the importance of the transition and complimented those on the council for their participation. "We know that the people of the south--particularly this city--have suffered more than others. For their memory, we have an obligation to succeed in the tasks you described. The great cities for Shia Islam are setting a model for democratic Iraq."

The council in Najaf had been in existence for just two weeks. Its 22 members were elected from a larger group assembled from leaders of the brand new professional associations and civic organizations that are springing up, alongside new political parties, unions, and religious groups. It is an encouraging first step.

Similar councils exist in most major cities in Iraq, including Basra, Karbala, Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk. In Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in the north, coalition officials brought together a delegation of 300 local leaders representing each of the religious and ethnic groups in the city. That group then elected an interim council of 30 members, which in turn picked a mayor, a deputy mayor, and three assistant mayors. That was two months ago. Wolfowitz met with the council on July 21.

"I would like to express my thanks to you and George Bush for taking this courageous decision," said Kamal Kirkuki, a Kurdish assistant mayor, "even though some other nations objected and the United Nations did nothing to liberate us from this tyrant."

Here, too, Wolfowitz was greeted with a mix of gratitude and pleas for help. Asked Dr. Amed Nasser Azzo, a council member, "When is it possible to establish media in Iraq to compete with Arab satellite television that agitates for instability in Iraq?"

EARLIER MONDAY, Wolfowitz met in Mosul with representatives of various nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations working in Iraq. Much of the meeting, which featured groups like the United Nations and Save the Children, was made near incomprehensible by a blizzard of acronyms. The comments I could understand were striking. One representative of the U.N. office of humanitarian assistance said, "We have gotten fantastic cooperation from the U.S. military's civil affairs teams." An Iraqi man from Suleimaniya, now working for the Mines Action Group, offered similar praise, and so did an American, a recent Johns Hopkins graduate working for the Research Triangle Institute. Interestingly, not one of the dozen or so humanitarian workers in the room used the word "occupation." All of them referred to the intervention as "the liberation."

America's challenges in free Iraq are significant. Those of us traveling with Wolfowitz heard about them in detail. Power is intermittent and unpredictable. Water isn't yet available at prewar levels. Jobs are scarce. Conspiracy theories about American motives are rampant. And security on the streets of Iraq is woefully lacking.

But most of those problems are solvable. Meanwhile, most doomsday predictions haven't come true. Few oil fields were set on fire. Iraq's majority Shiite population has resisted meddling from Iran. The Shiites didn't commit revenge killings against the Sunnis. There is no move by the Kurds to secede. There was no humanitarian crisis. There was no mass starvation. The "Arab street" was quiet. And "friendly" Arab governments never fell.

The 12 years of containment between the two Gulf wars were costly for the Iraqis. Counting only the mass graves and the executions at Abu Gharib, several hundred thousand at least lost their lives while Saddam Hussein was "kept in his box."

"If you'd say, 'Go through another 12 years of containment,' after seeing what we saw," says Wolfowitz, "I mean, that's impossible to argue." He added, "Some people say war is intrinsically immoral. This one wasn't."

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.