U.S. to quit Abu Ghraib, move prisoners

March 10, 2006|By LOUISE ROUG AND JAMES GERSTENZANG | LOUISE ROUG AND JAMES GERSTENZANG,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- The U.S. military confirmed plans yesterday to close the Abu Ghraib prison within the next few months, part of a wider effort to hand over authority and facilities to the Iraqi government.

Abu Ghraib - notorious as the site where U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi detainees and for its torture chambers during Saddam Hussein's rule - holds more than 4,500 inmates. Military officials said the prison, built by a British construction team in the 1960s, is crowded and needs replacing.

Detainees would be transferred to a new prison being built at Camp Cropper, the site near Baghdad International Airport where Hussein and 126 other high-level detainees are in custody.

The prison was not well known outside Iraq until publication in April 2004 of the photos of abuse of detainees, which spurred worldwide anger and further fueled the anti-American insurgency. The photographs included shots of naked prisoners forming a human pyramid, a female guard posing with a prisoner wearing a dog leash and prisoners being forced to simulate sex acts.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld voiced concern over ethnic strife in Iraq, telling Congress yesterday that if the violence there were to evolve into civil war, U.S. troops intended to let Iraqi forces deal with it.

Defending the Bush administration's $70 billion emergency war funding request before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Rumsfeld sought to assure senators that American combat units would not be ordered into the middle of full-scale civil strife.

Senate questions

In the days after last month's destruction of the Golden Mosque, a Shiite shrine in Samarra, U.S. military officials indicated that U.S. troops would try to avoid getting caught in the middle of civil war battles. But Rumsfeld's comments to senators marked the first time that he had advanced such an approach as U.S. policy.

U.S. officials have been careful in recent assessments, expressing optimism that a civil war could be avoided. But Rumsfeld and Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander responsible for U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East, acknowledged yesterday that ethnic tensions in Iraq were dangerously high.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia - the ranking Democrat on the committee - questioned Rumsfeld closely about the administration's request for more money.

"In recent days, Iraq has only narrowly missed descending into an all-out civil war, and top administration officials acknowledged that the threat of civil war is still very real," Byrd said. "The Congress and the public have a right to know the administration's plans for Iraq before scores of additional billions of dollars, billions of dollars, are spent in that war."

"Secretary Rumsfeld," Byrd said a moment later, "what is the plan if Iraq descends into civil war? Will our troops hunker down and wait out the violence? If not, whose side would our troops be ordered to take in a civil war?"

Rumsfeld replied that the "sectarian tension and conflict" in Iraq did not constitute a civil war "at the present time by most experts' calculation."

The secretary went on to say that he believed the unrest in Iraq "while changing in its nature from insurgency toward sectarian violence" was still "controllable by Iraqi security forces and multinational forces."

Meanwhile in Baghdad yesterday, Iraqi authorities hanged 13 prisoners convicted of being insurgents, including a woman, according to an official who was present.

The executions, authorized by the Iraqi government, were the first to involve insurgents and the second since the toppling of Hussein's regime in 2003.

The hangings come at a time when interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's position in a new government has been questioned by factions within Iraq.

"The prime minister is not soft," said Bassam Rhida, an adviser to Jaafari, who witnessed the executions. He dismissed the timing as coincidence.

"The new Iraq will have to have a different flavor - harsh on the criminals," said Rhida. "Maybe Saddam will come soon."

There are hundreds of prisoners on death row in the capital.

The executions, which were videotaped, took place in an undisclosed location in Baghdad and were witnessed by Rhida, a judge and several clerks. The prisoners were given a last meal and time to pray before their executions, he said. Three additional prisoners were scheduled to be hanged but couldn't be brought to Baghdad because of security concerns, Rhida said.

Political infighting

Political leaders have criticized the interim prime minister for not being tough enough and for mishandling a recent security crisis during which hundreds were killed in a wave of sectarian violence.

A group of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular parties spearheaded by President Jalal Talabani has tried to block his nomination to lead the next government, plunging the country into a political crisis.

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