A Prison on the Brink

By Scott Higham, Josh White and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 9, 2004

First of three articles

For U.S. military police officers in Baghdad, the Abu Ghraib prison was particularly hellish. Insurgents were firing mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades over the walls. The prisoners were prone to riot. There was no PX, no mess hall, no recreation facilities to escape the heat and dust. About 450 MPs were supervising close to 7,000 inmates, many of them crowded into cells, many more kept in tents hastily arranged on dirt fields within the razor-wired walls of the compound. Around the perimeter, GIs kept wary eyes on Iraqi guards of questionable loyalty.

Precisely how many prisoners were being held at Abu Ghraib was anyone's guess. Roll calls were spotty. Escapes were commonplace. Prison logs were replete with flippant and unprofessional remarks. MPs were occasionally out of uniform, and some were out of control. Discipline was breaking down. So was the chain of command.

Abu Ghraib was on the brink.

"Most of the time, I felt like my life was in danger," said Sgt. William Savage Jr., a Florida corrections officer sent to Abu Ghraib as a reservist with a military police company. "I always thought something was going to happen."

Few could imagine what was about to happen at Abu Ghraib. The photographs featuring piles of naked Iraqis seem as though they were taken from a pornographic magazine, not from the digital cameras carried by American servicemen and women. But an examination of military investigative reports and interviews with soldiers and officers in Iraq at the time reveal that there were early warnings, and that a combination of conditions inside Abu Ghraib produced a culture of licentious behavior and abuse. Confusion was high. Morale was low. The checks and balances established to hold soldiers accountable during the vagaries of war were virtually non-existent.

By the fall of 2003, rumors of abuse began to circulate. Sgt. Blas Hidalgo heard them while working the guard towers of Abu Ghraib. He dismissed the talk as made-up military gossip.

"It sounded too crazy," he told The Washington Post in a recent interview.

'Unnerving as Hell'

The problems at Abu Ghraib, which have unleashed an international scandal and shaken the Bush administration, were foreshadowed by experiences at two earlier prison camps set up by U.S. forces after the invasion in March 2003.

As U.S. troops marched north, Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, near Basra, quickly became the largest facility for Iraqi prisoners. For two months, military commanders sent thousands of prisoners to the makeshift camp. Soon the camp held more than 7,000 prisoners.

At Bucca, there were troubling signs in a military police unit that would later be at the center of what took place at Abu Ghraib.

On May 12, four soldiers from the 320th Military Police Battalion, based in Ashley, Pa., were charged with beating prisoners after transporting them to Camp Bucca. MPs from a different unit reported the incident, saying the legs of prisoners were held apart while soldiers kicked them in the groin.

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