The U.S. military freed more than 600 detainees Friday from Abu Ghraib prison, the largest release since officials announced their intention to cut the population in half and send people home to their families.
Hundreds of Iraqis packed the shoulder of the highway outside the prison, waiting for relatives and loved ones to emerge from behind the barbed wire and thick stone walls. Mothers and wives clutched the pictures and identification numbers of their detained sons and husbands, hoping that they would match those on a list of prisoners to be released.
"My husband is not a criminal and he is still here," said Rajaa Abdullah, 53, whose husband's number was on the list. "Where is justice? Where is the freedom that Bush claims he brought to the Iraqis?"
Heifa Naser, 50, Abdullah's sister-in-law who had waited in vain for the number of her husband, interrupted with tears and a choked voice. "We hate them," she said. "If I can, I'll kill them by myself, but I know I can't. We have only tears, and that's all. We like the American people, but the problem is their government. They are just like us, without any power. We saw them carrying banners and having demonstrations against the war."
As a caravan of U.S. soldiers passed in front of her, Naser shouted in Arabic: "May God curse you."
Seven U.S. soldiers have been charged with abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib, a 280-acre compound 20 miles west of Baghdad that first became notorious for torture and mass execution under the rule of President Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military said this week that it would vacate the prison by August, and President Bush has said he wants to see it demolished.
The U.S. military has released more than 2,000 prisoners in the past month and plans to free another 800 by June 30, when occupation officials are scheduled to turn over limited authority to an interim Iraqi government.
Col. Karl Goetzke, the Army staff judge advocate who oversees the detainee release board for Abu Ghraib, said a team of senior officers has reviewed case files of more than 7,500 detainees. Those not deemed to pose a security threat, he said, would be freed.
Friday's release got underway at around 10 a.m., when 18 U.S. soldiers in riot gear came out the front gate of the prison and started pushing people back. Led by a convoy of Humvees, 13 buses rolled out of the prison compound. Another convoy fell in behind, as two helicopters hovered overhead.
When relatives, some of whom had been waiting since dawn, caught sight of the first bus, the crowd surged across the highway, blocking traffic as they chanted, "Jihad for the sake of the victimized," "American is the enemy of God" and "Death for America."
Prisoners waved frantically from the bus windows and cried out in joy. Suddenly, three of the buses stopped in the middle of the road, and the relatives started running toward them while U.S. soldiers yelled at them to stay back. The soldiers fired warning shots into the air, but the crowd kept surging toward the stopped vehicles.
The prisoners began spilling out of the buses and into the arms of their family members. They cried and hugged one another, the long embrace of people who had not known whether they would ever hold one another again.
Mohammed Ghanim, 28, of Diyala, a province northeast of the capital, hurried toward his relatives, stopping briefly to say that he was detained because he was a former police officer. "I did not do anything bad to them," he said before rushing off. "The spies informed about me, and I'll give them a lesson because I know them well."
Ahmed Ali, who had a long beard, stepped off the bus in oversize jeans and a sleeveless undershirt. Ali, 28, of Baghdad, pulled at the loops of his pants, which hung around his waist. "The Americans stole our money, and see, they even stole my belt," he said.
The released prisoners said conditions inside the prison improved dramatically after the abuse scandal broke. Ali said his relatives brought him a local newspaper during a visit and showed him the pictures of the soldiers humiliating the detainees. "Their treatment changed after the pictures were shown on TV and newspapers," he said.
Abdul Aziz Mohammed, who also was released, held out bruised hands and wrists with large, dark rings where he said he was handcuffed. "Look at my hands," he said. "They are full of the torture signs. Look at my arm. They beat me because they were bored, and they found me a good toy to play with."
Hasan Ali stood with two relatives who had come to greet him. His family members peppered him with questions about his treatment at Abu Ghraib.
"They cut off the food for two days because I did not want the sandbags to cover my face," he said. "They made my friend naked and get in a big hole in the yard not far from the tents. But after the pictures were published, the treatment really changed.
"They are bad people," Ali said of his American captors. "The whole world watched their scandal."