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Inmates To Be Moved Temporarily Out Of Infamous Iraqi Prison


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Kelly McEvers. It's a name that conjures up grim images. Abu Ghraib prison. Once the site of prisoner abuse and torture, first under Saddam Hussein then under U.S. occupation, the prison temporarily closed this week. The decision comes as a Sunni-led insurgency in Western Iraq, near Abu Ghraib, is targeting Iraq's Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

To talk about Abu Ghraib, we reached Reuters Baghdad Bureau Chief Ned Parkerby Skype. Good morning, Ned.

NED PARKER: Morning, Kelly.

MCEVERS: First, we know what American jailers did to Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But give us an update - what kind of place was Abu Ghraib after American troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011?

PARKER: For Sunni Iraqis, Abu Ghraib prison was a symbol of the Shiite-led government's discriminatory policies. They believed many of their relatives were being held unjustly inside Abu Ghraib Prison after being held and sometimes tried - other times not - on terrorism charges in cases where they felt abuses were committed by the security forces.

So under the Americans Abu Ghraib was nefarious. Before that under Saddam it was nefarious and after the Americans it also remained sinister.

MCEVERS: According to the people who were imprisoned there. Last summer hundreds of inmates escaped from the prison, right? I mean, why has the Iraqi government waited until now to close it?

PARKER: Well, that's because of the war going on in Anbar Province right now where the government has troops fighting with an offshoot of al-Qaida and other Sunni armed groups. And it happens that many of the fighters now are in territory very close to Abu Ghraid Prison in the farmlands around it.

That's coupled with insurgents from an al-Qaida offshoot have taken control of a dam very near by Fallujah, which is also very close to Abu Ghraib. And they've flooded surrounding areas. So there's a fair fear, even, that as more water is released it could even reach up to the prison.

MCEVERS: So the idea is authorities closed the prison for fear that people inside the prison would somehow be aligned with the militants?

PARKER: I think it could be any number of scenarios. It would be that with the insurgents stronger than they have been in such a long time - controlling territory nearby - the known corruption of elements of the security forces, you could have prisoners breaking out again.

And incidentally, of those prisoners who escaped in the summer, some of them now at least are leaders of this al-Qaida offshoot called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

MCEVERS: And so the 2400 inmates who were in the prison, where did they go?

PARKER: I believe they've been transferred to different prisons in north and central Iraq, but it's a bit of a mystery. And we should realize that since the jailbreak in the summer, families have not had any contact with prisoners inside Abu Ghraid. They have been on lockdown. So probably even the relatives of these prisoners do not know where they are.

MCEVERS: The closure comes just ahead of Iraq's national elections. Does this say anything about what we can expect in those elections?

PARKER: I think it's an indicator of the sense of war in the country right now. The prime minister is very much running as commander-in-chief in Iraq, fighting al-Qaida or al-Qaida offshoots. And there are bombings every day, assassinations. Anbar Province, which is right next to Abu Ghraib, is in the middle of a nasty, nasty battle.

And there are fights like this going all around areas close to Bagdad. So before the elections there's a sense of dread, worry. People are scared.

MCEVERS: Ned Parker, thanks for talking to us.

PARKER: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: That's Ned Parker, Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.