Iraqis: Why Demolish Prison?
Some Support Idea of Turning Abu Ghraib Into a Museum
By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page A17
BAGHDAD, May 25 -- Ghassan Abbas rolled his mustard-yellow prayer beads through his fingers as he sat Tuesday afternoon on a cushioned stool outside his tobacco shop in the eastern part of the capital and asked a practical question of President Bush, who in a televised speech Monday night proposed demolishing the Abu Ghraib prison.
Why get rid of a perfectly good prison?
"Abu Ghraib is the biggest one and can keep many detainees," Abbas said, shaking his head. "How can they demolish it?"
The 280-acre prison compound 20 miles west of Baghdad was notorious under former president Saddam Hussein and is now at the center of an embarrassing scandal for the U.S. military after a number of its soldiers were captured in photographs and on video beating and humiliating detainees there. But for some Iraqis, the prison is just a prison, not the symbol of death and torture and disgraceful conduct that Bush declared it to be in a speech from the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania on Monday night.
There has been no groundswell of support here for razing the facility. In fact, earlier this month, the Iraqi Governing Council discussed the possibility of turning part or all of it into a museum.
Interior Minister Sameer Shaker Sumaidaie, who is in charge of police and security in Iraq, said the building is not the problem.
"I can understand the rush to abolish Abu Ghraib," Sumaidaie said on Monday, but added, "I personally don't think the building itself has a meaning positive or negative."
Sumaidaie said the stain of Abu Ghraib would be erased simply by making it more open and making the people who run it more accountable.
Rajaa Habib Khuzai, a member of the Governing Council, said demolishing the prison "will not change the impressions of the Iraqis about what happened at the jail.
"The coming generation should see what the Iraqi people suffered," she said. "The best thing is to make half of it a museum and remain the other half as a prison because the prison is so big and there is not need to demolish it and build a new one."
Nasir Chaderchi, another Governing Council member, also said the prison should remain as a symbol of what the Iraqi prisoners suffered.
Sentiment on a busy commercial street in the Karada district of the capital was mixed.
Kadhim Ali Jasim, a 29-year-old security guard at the Babylon Hotel, said he did not support demolishing the prison.
"I am with changing the staff and the rules of the prison and respect the Iraq man even if he was a criminal," he said, stopping for a moment to talk after buying a pack of cigarettes from Abbas's tobacco shop. He added, "I don't think they can change the staff and prison's rules until we have a government."
Down the street, Wisam Majeed, 26, a trader, said he was in favor of tearing down the prison. "It is good to demolish it so the people can forget about Abu Ghraib prison and try to start all over again."
Isam Khalil, 32, an electronics equipment retailer, said that as long as the prison remains standing it "symbolizes scandals."
"The Americans defamed our country's reputation, and they destroyed us," he said.
But Muhammad Hussein Abdul Rahim, 45, who owns an appliance shop on the same street, said Abu Ghraib was the best prison the world. "It is comfortable," he said. "It is built on a very big space and far from the city."
"They can change the staff," he said.
Seven U.S. soldiers with the 372nd Military Police Company have been charged with abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One soldier, Spec. Jeremy C. Sivits, was sentenced to a year in prison last week for his role in taking a photograph of detainees and not stopping the abuse.
More than 3,000 detainees remain at Abu Ghraib, where the U.S. military held more than 7,000 prisoners at one point in the same cells where Hussein kept his enemies. He often ordered mass executions to quell prison unrest.
As part of an effort to reduce the prison population, the U.S. military's top spokesman said on Tuesday that 580 to 600 prisoners would be released on Friday. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt also said the military would release more prisoners June 4.
In his speech Monday night, Bush said the United States would fund the building of a new prison after the June 30 deadline for handing over limited governing authority to the Iraqis and then, "with the approval of the Iraqi government," knock down Abu Ghraib. But he offered no time frame and did not say where the money would come from.
Special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company