Abu Ghraib businesses look for a boost
January 27, 2009
CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq – The reopening of Abu Ghraib prison, infamous for a U.S. detainee abuse scandal in 2004, is generating hope among some Iraqis that business could return to the depressed area.
The facility quietly resumed operation about three months ago under the Iraqi Ministry of Justice and is housing hundreds of convicts, according to the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division.
U.S. forces in the area were not immediately notified of the opening and keep no presence inside the prison, which is about 20 miles west of Baghdad, the battalion said.
Despite a brutal past, the prison has stirred little concern from Iraqis in Abu Ghraib, a district torn by years of violence and bombings that lasted through last fall, according to interviews with residents and soldiers.
Shop owners and workers in the Khandari market, which borders the sprawling complex, said Tuesday that they see the prison as an opportunity to rehabilitate business more than a symbol of abuse.
"We now will have the people come and visit [the prisoners] and they are going to buy stuff in the market," said Ali Hady, who was working at a shop stacked with fruit imported from Syria.
When asked about U.S. abuses, Hady shrugged off the question and said it is not an important issue.
The owner of a hardware shop, Akhed Abdullah Hamid, said he hopes to profit from the prison in the future but his business has remained slow since the opening.
Hamid said Iraqi army checkpoints have discouraged visitors to the market and the entrance to the prison, which once admitted visitors through the market area, was moved to a nearby highway.
A smaller prison population has also crimped economic benefits to the hardware shop, he said.
"There are very few prisoners," Hamid said. "In the past, there were 1,000."
About 200 to 300 convicted Iraqi prisoners are now confined at Abu Ghraib, said Capt. Ben Roark, with the battalion headquarters company.
U.S. forces do not enter or monitor the prison, which houses only Iraqis convicted of crimes, and all functions are handled by the Iraqi national government, Roark said.
In 2004, the prison was under control of the U.S. and was used to house detainees – Iraqi suspects who had not been convicted of any crime.
Hundreds of photos were released that year detailing widespread torture and abuse by U.S. soldiers, including images of detainees placed in stress positions, stripped naked and hooded, threatened by dogs and humiliated by a female guard.
The abuse caused a worldwide backlash against the U.S.-led war in Iraq and seven soldiers were convicted of crimes. The name Abu Ghraib is often still associated with the incident.
But bloody years of fighting have passed in Abu Ghraib, an area that stretches between Baghdad and Fallujah, and the prison’s past does not capture the imagination of war-weary Iraqis as it does the rest of the world.
"They have more recent, unpleasant memories that go much deeper," said Lt. Col. Mario Diaz, the Stryker battalion commander.
Home and vehicle bombings plagued Abu Ghraib and sparked further sectarian fighting through October. Violence forced the closure of main highways and choked businesses in the area.
The Abu Ghraib prison reopened amid a precipitous drop in violence and a burst of reconstruction work on area markets, schools and small businesses.
In this period of promise — still brief in the timeline of the war — Iraqis are looking to the old symbol of U.S. abuse to lift their economic circumstances.
"They’ve moved on and are trying to regrow the area," Roark said.