Earlier today, the Iraqi government announced that it has shut down the Abu Ghraib prison. According to Iraqi officials, the closure is due to growing concerns that Sunni insurgents in the area may have the capabilities to launch an attack against the prison, possibly freeing some of the roughly 2,400 prisoners. Those prisoners have now been moved to more secure locations in central and northern Iraq. It is unclear at this point whether Abu Ghraib will reopen if the Iraqi government is able to secure the area.
Concerns about security at Abu Ghraib began earlier this year when insurgents were able to capture and hold Falluja, which is only a short distance from the prison. Tensions were compounded by the fact that insurgents attacked and released hundreds of prisoners from Abu Ghraib and Taji in July of 2013. Many of the escapees are said to have aligned themselves with al Qaeda and contributed to violence in Syria as well as Iraq.
Abu Ghraib is best known for the prisoner abuse scandal involving American troops in 2004, but allegations of human rights abuses go much deeper than that. Critics of the current Iraqi government claim that the government has loaded the prison with thousands of young Sunni men, some of which have no ties to terrorist organizations. Critics also claim that the Hussein regime is responsible for atrocities even prior to the American invasion of Iraq. One former prisoner stated that, “The place should be a museum of torture, for what happened there under Saddam, the Americans and [current Prime Minister] Maliki.”
Iraqi citizens in the area are now concerned that they will be abandoned by the government and left to deal with the insurgency by themselves as it creeps closer toward Abu Ghraib. An unnamed local grocer stated, “[w]e see gunmen in the streets every day, and a few hours later we see the security forces. We don’t know what is happening here.”
It is still unclear whether Abu Ghraib will be reopened in the future and it may be quite some time until that question is answered. What is clear is that this decision will reduce fears that more prisoners will be freed and return to the front lines. It may also ease concerns about the human rights violations that occurred at the prison, although there is no evidence that those violations were isolated to the Abu Ghraib prison. At the very least, it is the temporary end to a source of embarrassment for the United States and Iraqi government that has been used as a recruiting tool by al Qaeda.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research