BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government said Tuesday that it had closed the Abu Ghraib prison, the site of a notorious prisoner abuse scandal during the US occupation of Iraq, because of fears that it could be overrun by Sunni insurgents who have gained strength over the last year.
In a statement, the Justice Ministry said it had moved 2,400 prisoners to other high-security prisons in central and northern Iraq, adding that Abu Ghraib’s location — west of central Baghdad and on the edge of insurgent-controlled areas of Anbar province — had become a “hot zone.”
It was not clear whether the closing was permanent, or whether the prison might reopen if the Sunni insurgency is tamed. But it nevertheless underscored the rapid deterioration of security in Iraq since the beginning of the year, when insurgents captured Fallujah, a short drive from the prison, from which hundreds of inmates escaped last year.
Abu Ghraib, a proud tribal and farming community when Saddam Hussein was in power, is now famous for its prison, and its painful legacy.
For Iraqis, the prison has a long and grim history as a place of abuse under successive authorities — Hussein’s brutal rule, the US occupation, and, critics say, the current government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. Human rights advocates say that Maliki has filled Iraq’s prisons, including Abu Ghraib, with young Sunni men, many of whom have ties to insurgent groups but many others who are innocent.
In late 2002, as the US invasion loomed, Hussein emptied the infamous prison, creating scenes of jubilation in the streets. In 2004, the disclosure that US soldiers had tortured detainees there galvanized Iraqis’ anger toward their occupiers, and probably forever tainted the legacy of the United States’ war in Iraq.
“The place should be a museum of torture, for what happened there under Saddam, the Americans, and Maliki,” said a former prisoner under both the Americans and the current government.
The man, who refused to give his name, saying he was worried about being captured by security forces, said he was among hundreds of inmates who escaped last year when militants aligned with Al Qaeda attacked the prison.
Some of those escapees have become top leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now a Qaeda splinter group that has taken on an active, and brutal, role in the civil war in Syria and the rising insurgency in Iraq.
Many other escapees have filled the fighting ranks of the group in both countries, along with militants who have escaped from other Iraqi jails in recent times.
The government had apparently been emptying the prison over several nights, under protection of special forces soldiers, during a curfew in which vehicles are prohibited from traveling from midnight to 4 a.m., according to a security official.
Last year, nearly 8,000 Iraqi civilians and were killed in attacks, according to the United Nations, the highest level in at least five years. This year, more than 2,000 civilians were killed through the end of March, the United Nations says, but deaths from the fighting in Anbar were not included because it is too difficult to monitor the situation.