Inside Abu Ghraib Prison

I Visited Abu Ghraib In 2003 During the Iraq War


Written by Andrew Arnett

All photos by Andrew Arnett

During the Iraq War, I went to shoot video inside Abu Ghraib prison. Working with my father, foreign correspondent Peter Arnett, I entered the site of the soon to be infamous Abu Ghraib torture and abuse scandal.

In October 2002, only months prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein released all the inmates at Abu Ghraib, leaving the prison empty. We entered the prison grounds on April 29, 2003. The Coalition Forces, having just entered Baghdad, had not yet secured the prison. This left a window of opportunity to explore the prison grounds unhindered.

The only people we encountered were local Iraqis searching for evidence of their lost loved ones, and Red Crescent workers exhuming buried remains from what turned out to be mass burial pits located on the prison grounds.

Red Crescent workers incovering burial pits at Abu Ghraib, Photo © 2003 Andrew Arnett

The prison was notorious for cruelty and torture long before reports emerged in late 2003 by Amnesty International and the Associated Press citing cases of abuse and torture of inmates by members of the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency.

From the 1950's until 2002, the prison was one of the sites where Saddam Hussein incarcerated, tortured and murdered thousands of political dissidents, in addition to common criminals.

One of the most chilling aspects I encountered was upon entering the gallows and seeing the hangman’s noose and trap door. Even more disturbing was to discover the rope still slick with moisture from recent use, evidence that executions continued until the regime’s ultimate collapse.

Hangman’s noose at Abu Ghraib, Photo © 2003 Andrew Arnett

The worst was to be found outside the prison walls. There I encountered Iraqi Red Crescent Society workers and local men unearthing mass graves. Many were freshly buried, covered hastily by thin layers of rock. The stench of death and decay hung thick in the air.

Crossing the highway to the Abu Ghraib cemetery, we found graves marked only with serial numbers. A group of Iraqis were hovering about in hopes of gaining information on the fate of deceased relatives.

Searching for lost relatives at the Abu Ghraib Cemetery, Photo © 2003 Andrew Arnett

On December 9, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the CIA torture report, resurrecting yet again, the ghosts of Abu Ghraib.

“The CIA used the Abu Ghraib abuses as a contrasting reference point for its detention and interrogation activities,” the Senate report states.

On December 11, the Guardian published a report detailing how the Islamic State, or ISIS, fomented in American controlled Iraqi prisons such as Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca.

Dating back to 2003, these places of incarceration served as meeting grounds for future ISIS leaders, giving them an opportunity to gather and organize.

The article sites American officers claiming these prisons were “radicalizing elements. They were counterproductive in many ways. They were being used to plan and organize, to appoint leaders and launch operations.”

Inside Abu Ghraib prison, Photo @ © 2003 Andrew Arnett

On July 21, 2014, a meticulously planned attack on Abu Ghraib prison, combined with a simultaneous attack on another prison in the city of Taji, resulted in the flight of more than some five hundred prisoners.

The Islamic State and the Levant boldly claimed responsibility for this sophisticated operation which once again put Abu Ghraib on the map.

Currently, fighting continues between Islamic State militants and the Iraqi Army in the district of Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad.

[VIDEO] Inside Abu Ghraib Prison © 2014 Andrew Arnett