ABU GHRAIB, Iraq – Nearly 300 Iraqi detainees, some weeping and waving to friends, were released from the Abu Ghraib (search) prison on Friday, a day after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) made a surprise visit and insisted the Pentagon did not try to cover up abuses there.
One bus carrying 40 prisoners left the jail and drove to an American military base in west Baghdad, where tribal leaders awaited some of them. One by one, prisoners got out, kneeled, and prayed beside the bus. Others left on the same bus, bound for other Baghdad neighborhoods.
Hundreds of relatives of those detained had stood outside the prison since early morning, waiting for their release. U.S. Marines blocked off both lanes of a highway as the first bus left the prison compound. At least five other buses left the prison.
The U.S. military released 293 prisoners and planned to release another 475 prisoners on May 21, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt (search), the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. He said 22 prisoners who were originally scheduled for release Friday will be released May 21.
After spending over nine months in the prison, Hussein Sami did not complain of physical abuse. However, he said he and other prisoners were under psychological pressure, with guards repeatedly shouting and insulting inmates. The prison was also unsafe because Iraqi insurgents sometimes targeted it with mortar rounds.
Sami arrived at his house in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, and family members slaughtered a sheep at the gates in celebration. He claimed he was never told why he was arrested. His father and brother were left behind at Abu Ghraib, Sami said.
Another former prisoner, Mohammed al-Musawi, complained that he was humiliated by guards at least once during his 11-month incarceration.
"They forced me to take all my clothes off, and female prison guards were whispering and laughing at me, " Musawi said while sitting in a room with tribal leaders. He was arrested in Baghdad's Hurriyah neighborhood, for allegedly participating in an attack against a U.S. tank.
Al-Musawi spoke of other detainees who left interrogation rooms with bruises, apparently from beatings.
"After taking some of the detainees into the interrogation rooms, they would come out with bruises and swellings in their bodies," he said.
Both men spoke inside the U.S. military's Camp Thunder in west Baghdad after a short bus journey from Abu Ghraib.
The coalition periodically releases prisoners from the notorious Saddam-era jail, where abuses of prisoners by American soldiers have erupted into a major scandal and damaged the credibility of the U.S.-led coalition governing Iraq.
Images of abuse were taken by American military guards at the prison near Baghdad. Courts-martial have been ordered for three military police guards.
Nahidah Abdulkarim, a housewife who said her three sons were detained by U.S. forces in January, stood in a dusty field and peered through the barbed wire fence at the prison.
"I am so eager to see them again so that I can kill all the bad and ugly thoughts that my sons had been abused inside the prison," she said. "Every time I see the pictures of the abused Iraqi prisoners, I die a hundred times."
Police Lt. Col. Omar Aljuburi said he came to check on the possible release of his two cousins, who were arrested in the northern town of Kirkuk for allegedly participating in the insurgency against U.S. troops. Aljuburi said the allegations were false.
During his visit Thursday, Rumsfeld encouraged prison commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller to thin out the prisoner population as quickly as possible. Miller said 300 to 400 detainees per week are either released outright or transferred to the Iraqi justice system.
Miller said he would cut the number of inmates at Abu Ghraib in half, to fewer than 2,000 from the current 3,800. He also said that some interrogation techniques, such as sleep deprivation or stressful positions, will require a commander's approval.
The U.S.-led coalition has about a dozen prisons around Iraq holding a total of 7,000 to 8,000 inmates.
Rumsfeld called the controversy surrounding the prison a "body blow for all of us" and said the people who did wrong will be punished.
The more than 3,000 Iraqis at Abu Ghraib are "security detainees," or people suspected of roles in insurgent attacks on coalition forces, Miller said.
All prisoners under U.S. control will have been moved out of the old prison building by the end of the month, and a new complex of outdoor camps will be built to provide better living conditions.
Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee (search) earlier this month that any decision to destroy Abu Ghraib prison is best left for the Iraqi interim government expected to take power from the coalition on June 30.
"From my standpoint, I think it's not a bad idea but I think it's really up to the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld had said.