BAGHDAD, Iraq – Incessant attacks against Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib (search) prison may force the U.S. military to return the facility to Iraq's government and take their own high-security prisoners to a safer place, a U.S. military official said.
As the U.S. mulls over a plan to pull out of the notorious facility, located on the outskirts of the capital, U.S. military figures show that a crackdown against insurgents before and after Jan. 30's landmark parliamentary elections has bloated Iraq's (search) prison system to the breaking point.
"The reason we would like to move our operations from Abu Ghraib is that it has been regularly targeted with attacks from insurgents. The new facility would be within the larger Baghdad International Airport complex, making it less susceptible to attacks," Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for Iraq Detention Operations (search), told The Associated Press.
Abu Ghraib became infamous because of an abuse scandal that unfolded there after the publication last April of photographs showing naked, terrified Iraqi prisoners being mistreated and humiliated by U.S. military guards.
Plans for moving the prison, however, are not yet final, Johnson said. The military, he added, will continue to the notorious facility "for the foreseeable future."
Johnson said prisoners at Abu Ghraib were divided into two groups — "security detainees" under American control, and common Iraqi criminals under the control of the Iraqi judicial system.
Abu Ghraib is a 280-acre (113-hectare) facility, a jumble of top-security buildings and minimum risk tent cities, located along a dusty highway west of the city.
The facility has come under repeated attack from insurgents. In April, a barrage of 28 mortars rounds killed 22 prisoners and injured 91. There were no U.S. deaths in that attack.
"I would anticipate the Iraqis would continue to use it as a civil prison, not for security detainees, a prison under the ministry of justice for people who are common criminals," he said. "Most likely, they'll just take over the whole complex."
Although the number of detainees at Abu Ghraib has surged above its original capacity, it remains "manageable," Johnson said, explaining that security and not overcrowding was the main reason the military was thinking about moving the facility.
Abu Ghraib and one another "theater-level" facility have become overcrowded, according to figures provided by the U.S. military over the weekend. There are three such facilities in Iraq, Camp Bucca near the southern city of Umm Qasr and Camp Cropper at the Baghdad International Airport complex.
At 3,200 inmates, Abu Ghraib has already surpassed the 2,500 people it was designed to incarcerate. Camp Bucca has 5,750 detainees, 550 more than its capacity. Camp Cropper, which holds 110 high-profile detainees, including former dictator Saddam Hussein, is the only prison that is not yet overpopulated.
In the run-up to the Iraqi elections, many suspects were rounded up in a bid to secure the polls, and the figures showed that more than 1,473 were captured in the two weeks before the Jan. 30 vote.
The numbers have not dropped after the elections — last month, 1,927 suspects were captured, 1,049 of whom were processed to detention facilities.
"The numbers reflect the reality that units continue to capture people who are trying to undermine the Iraqi government and threaten security in the nation," Johnson said.
The military has been refurbishing Camp Bucca for several months and new compounds are likely to be used at the facility by the end of March.
According to U.S. military figures, review and release boards set up by coalition forces and the interim Iraqi government, which began work in August after the Abu Ghraib scandal, have been released 9,000 detainees in 2004, while 1,400 have been released since Jan. 1.
That has left Abu Ghraib and the other facility crowded with hard-core inmates and insurgents.
"Because of the people we detain, the facilities are inherently dangerous places," Johnson said. "We understand the dangers, train the guards and leadership to deal with those issues, and constantly review procedures to ensure effective contingencies are in place."
There have been at least three major outbreaks of violence at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, the most recent on Jan. 31 when U.S. guards fired on prisoners during a riot at Camp Bucca, killing four detainees and injuring six others.