BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military said Thursday it would begin moving thousands of prisoners out of Abu Ghraib prison to a new lockup near Baghdad's airport within three months and hand the notorious facility over to Iraqi authorities as soon as possible.
Abu Ghraib has become perhaps the most infamous prison in the world, known as the site where U.S. soldiers abused some Iraqi detainees and, earlier, for its torture chambers during Saddam Hussein's rule.
The sprawling facility on the western outskirts of Baghdad will be turned over to Iraqi authorities once the prisoner transfer to Camp Cropper and other U.S. military prisons in the country is finished. The process will take several months, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
Abu Ghraib currently houses 4,537 out of the 14,589 detainees held by the U.S. military in the country. Iraqi authorities also hold prisoners at Abu Ghraib, though it is not known how many.
The U.S. government initially spoke of tearing down Abu Ghraib after it became a symbol of the scandal. Widely publicized photographs of prisoner abuse by American military guards and interrogators led to intense global criticism of the U.S. war in Iraq and helped fuel the Sunni Arab insurgency.
But Abu Ghraib was kept in service after the Iraqi government objected. Planning for the new facility at Camp Cropper began in 2004, Johnson said.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. wants to turn Abu Ghraib over to the Iraqis fast as possible.
"There are facilities being built so that the U.S. can pull out of Abu Ghraib. Then it will be up to the Iraqi government to decide what they want to do. I do not know that the Iraqi government had decided. It's an Iraqi decision, I just don't know that they've made that decision."
But the Iraqis were all but certain to use Abu Ghraib as a jail for some time at least, because they do not have the money to build new ones.
The Iraqi Cabinet announced Thursday that it hanged 13 insurgents, the first executions of militants since the ouster of Saddam.
The announcement listed the name of only one of those hanged, Shukair Farid, a former policeman in the northern city of Mosul, who allegedly confessed that he had worked with Syrian foreign fighters to enlist fellow Iraqis to kill police and civilians.
"The competent authorities have today carried out the death sentences of 13 terrorists," the Cabinet announcement said.
Farid had "confessed that foreigners recruited him to spread the fear through killings and abductions," the government said.
A judicial official said the death sentences were handed down in separate trials and were carried out in Baghdad.
"The 13 terrorists were tried in different courts and their trials began in 2005 and ended earlier this year," an official of the Supreme Judiciary Council said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal from insurgents.
In September, Iraq hanged three convicted murderers, the first executions of any convicts since Saddam's ouster in April 2003. They were convicted of killing three police officers, kidnapping and rape.
Capital punishment was suspended during the formal U.S. occupation, which ended in June 2004, and the Iraqis reinstated the penalty two months later for those found guilty of murder, endangering national security and distributing drugs, saying it was necessary to help put down the persistent insurgency.
The authorities also wanted to have the option of executing Saddam if he is convicted of crimes committed by his regime. Under the former dictator, 114 offenses were punishable by death.
Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial for allegedly massacring more than 140 people in Dujail, north of Baghdad, after an assassination attempt against him there in 1982.
Death sentences must be approved by the three-member presidential council headed by President Jalal Talabani, who opposes executions. In the September hangings and again in the Thursday executions, Talabani refused to sign the authorization himself but gave his two vice presidents the authority.
Also Thursday, a series of explosions rocked Baghdad, including a car bomb that struck a Sunni mosque and a shooting that killed a total of 17 civilians and wounded 31 as a dust storm enveloped the capital.
One of the deadly blasts targeted an Iraqi army patrol in the mostly Sunni western neighborhood of Amariyah, killing nine civilians and wounding six, according to an Interior Ministry official, Major Falah al-Mohammedawi.
A car bomb also exploded near the Sunni Al-Israa Walmiraj mosque in east Baghdad, killing five civilians and wounding 12 others, police Capt. Mahir Hamad Mousa said.
Police reported finding five more blindfolded, handcuffed bodies killed execution-style, three of them near Fallujah, west of Baghdad , and two others in the Sadr City Shiite slum in the east of the capital.
The U.S. military reported the death of another Marine, killed Wednesday in insurgency-ridden Anbar province. At least 2,305 U.S. service members have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Meanwhile, an Iraqi Justice Ministry official said the U.S. military had released two senior members of Saddam's former regime, including a deputy prime minister, after finding they were not involved in crimes against humanity.
Abdel Tawab Mullah Huweish, a former deputy prime minister and minister of military industrialization, and Saeed Abdul-Majid al-Faisal, former Foreign Ministry undersecretary, were released Feb. 23, said Justice Ministry official Busho Ibrahim Ali.
Huweish, who had been in custody since May 2, 2003, was one of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam's regime.
"They were freed because there is no proof that they committed crimes against humanity," Ali said.
In political developments, Shiite politicians said they asked President Talabani, a Kurd, to convene parliament March 19, one week past the constitutional deadline, marking an apparent compromise in the battle over a second term for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite.
Shiite legislators Khaled al-Attiyah and Khudayer al-Khuzai told The Associated Press that the request for parliament to convene had been delivered to Talabani. On Sunday, the president sought to issue a decree that would have called the parliament into session on March 12, as spelled out in the constitution.
But the move was blocked when one of two vice presidents — a Shiite — initially refused to co-sign the decree as required by law. Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi relented Wednesday, but the issue still faced heated opposition from other Shiite political forces, especially in the powerful bloc loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.