ABU GHRAIB, Iraq – The new Iraqi administration is trying to remake the image of Abu Ghraib prison (search), the notorious jail on Baghdad's western outskirts where a worldwide scandal began.
In the cellblock where the abuse took place, an eerie silence prevails as ceiling fans whip the furnance-like air across the fresh paint and new Chinese locks. A handful of common criminals spend their days in quiet solitary confinement, a sharp contrast to the reports of torture and executions under Saddam Hussein (search), and sexual abuse at the hands of U.S. soldiers.
An Associated Press reporter and photographer, escorted by American and Iraqi officials Saturday, got the first oustsider's glimpse of the new version of prison life inside the lockup.
"The building itself isn't evil. It's just a question of who's running it," said its newly appointed warden Bassim, a prison employee for 25 years under Saddam. Bassim refused to allow use of his full name and declined photographs, fearing he would be recognized.
The infamous sections 1A and 1B were the sites of U.S. abuse of political prisoners, but now they hold troublemakers and problem inmates.
The entire Iraqi-controlled section of the prison holds 1,200 inmates, but most don't know it was the place of former abuse. Neither do most of their jailers.
The knowledge, overseers say, would only be ammunition for those determined to undermine postwar reconstruction and attack Iraqis cooperating with American occupiers.
The U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (search) took charge of the prison after the military failed to quell riots in April. It handed control to the Iraqis in June, before the official transfer of sovereignty.
"They're running the place the way we would typically run a U.S. prison," said Mike Pannek, the U.S. warden adviser who led the walkthrough. He was brought in from his job as a warden in his hometown of Spokane, Wash., to administer and now advise the Iraqis.
Political detainees remain under U.S. control in Camp Redemption, a city of tents beyond the prison's walls. But the criminal offenders live inside the prison itself, supervised by 480 corrections officers.
While conditions have improved, it is far from perfect. Five Iraqi prison officers were recently arrested for trying to smuggle drugs in to prisoners. Some inmates have been incarcerated for more than a year and are still waiting for their cases to be reviewed.
Officials from Iraq's Human Rights Ministry visit weekly, and slowly work through the cases to determine who stays and who goes.
In most cells, lethargy chokes the air. Temperatures during Iraq's summer reach 122 degrees. Many of the men wear long white shorts and little else as they lie sprawled on foam mattresses on the floor. Metal bunks were removed after prisoners, during riots in April, made knives from the iron and pried locks open.
Saturday was visiting day for mothers, wives and children. The flip-flop shuffle of plastic slippers smacked against the pavement as the male prisoners lined up inside a gray cinder block room, facing a wire fence in their bright orange jumpsuits.
Their hard expressions melted into smiles as they spotted familiar people. Mothers and wives clawed fingers into the wire, constantly readjusting veils and screaming across the 2-yard divide to be heard.
Family squabbles and money for lawyers were the main topics of conversation.
After a half hour, a guard banged his fist against a steel door: Time to go. The women ignored him, wanting a few more moments. Female correction officers clapped their hands, trying to herd them away.
"Can I give him this picture of his child?" asked one woman, smiling shyly and holding a picture of her infant. Another woman gave her baby daughter to a guard, who carried the child to the prisoners' side so the father could hold her briefly.
An American adviser shook his head. "They're not supposed to do that," he said, sighing.
The Iraqis say they're ready to take on the responsibility of running the prison, but they fear the fury of their countrymen because they're dealing with the Americans. Insurgents have threatened to kill any Iraqis they conclude are collaborating with the enemy.
Bassim said the previous warden was kidnapped and taken to the nearby city of Fallujah and shot in the right leg five times before being released. A prison guard was recently gunned down by local insurgents, he said.
Bassim insists that, during the Saddam era, the prison's condition was poor, but the torture and executions that gave Abu Ghraib its original reputation took place in the section that housed political detainees — not the criminal block where he worked.
"The food was so bad they would rely on their relatives, who'd bring food for them when they visited," Bassim said. "They used to sleep on top of each other. One would have his leg on another's arm, another on someone's back."
The number of men in each cell has dropped from 30 in Saddam's time to about eight now, he said.
Even with the recent overhaul, the reputation that comes with the words Abu Ghraib seems unlikely to abate any time soon. Even some of those Iraqi families desperate to see their jailed loved ones are staying away, their years of Saddam-fueled terror only exacerbated by the recent American abuses.
"They're intimidated by the prison," Pannek said. "The problem now is that it's even more tainted by the scandal. It's another problem we have to overcome."