As a symbol of the excesses that have come to haunt the US “war on terror” since 9/11, the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is perhaps rivalled only by Guantanamo Bay. Both embody the tragic over-extension of power and disregard for human rights that is seen to characterise US military operations overseas.
Made infamous by the scandal that erupted in 2004, when leaked photographs showed enlisted US soldiers engaged in the shameful physical and sexual abuse of Iraqi detainees, Abu Ghraib has an equally sordid record of being used by the Saddam Hussein regime as a site where political prisoners were held and tortured for decades.
Now, citing security concerns after hundreds of inmates escaped last year, Iraq’s government has closed the prison complex, though it remains unclear as to whether the shutdown is permanent.
The decision ought to be welcomed, given the prison’s notoriety. When news of the prisoner abuse scandal broke in 2004, then US President George W. Bush had vowed to “demolish the Abu Ghraib prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning” — lofty rhetoric now seen as yet another broken American promise.
The mistreatment of inmates provoked worldwide outrage and severely damaged the US mission to “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqis, leaving it struggling to patch relations with Iraqi officials. Now, almost three years after the last US troops left Iraq, the shutdown also underscores the country’s deteriorating security situation, which has seen a renewed surge of violence that has claimed more than 2,000 lives this year. The prison structure is located in west Baghdad, which is particularly insecure, as last July’s mass breakout showed, and is only a short drive from Fallujah, which was recaptured by the Sunni insurgency earlier this year. Even in closure, Abu Ghraib remains emblematic of the darkest chapters of Iraq’s recent past.