May 29, 2004

To Frenzied Scenes, Abu Ghraib Frees 624 Prisoners


New York Times

ABU GHRAIB PRISON, Iraq, May 28 — Raising their voices in slow, melodic chants of "God is Great," hundreds of Iraqis took over a highway in front of Abu Ghraib prison on Friday to greet buses carrying out 623 men and one woman after months of detention.

The prisoner release was the fourth from Abu Ghraib this month and the largest since the publication of photographs showing American soldiers abusing prisoners there.

Women strained to glimpse husbands or sons through the dusty windows of each bus that bounced along the dirt road from the prison to the highway, bound for drop-off points close to main cities. Men whistled and pumped their fists in the air.

The detainees, many heavily bearded and with overgrown, wild hair, leaned out of the bus windows, waving and searching frantically for relatives in the street. Some held up Korans or made victory signs. Others, dressed in orange jumpsuit prison garb, stared stonily ahead.

"Where is my husband?" wailed a middle-aged woman, Nadira al-Mansour, as about a dozen of the packed buses drove by. Next to her a sobbing woman raised her hands to the sky as if in prayer.

The prison releases have been accelerating ahead of the planned transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.

A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, said detainees' cases were reviewed by military judges and lawyers. "If it is deemed there is not sufficient evidence for prosecution, and if they are not deemed a significant threat to coalition forces, they are cleared for release," he said. "The plan is to have this review completed for all detainees by the end of June."

There are now 6,500 detainees in Iraq, with 3,000 in Abu Ghraib alone, he said.

The emotional and at times chaotic scene at the prison was testament to the extent that Iraqis have banded together in their outrage over the abuses there. At one of the largest Baghdad mosques, Um al-Qura, attendance at Friday Prayer was lower than usual because many Iraqis went to Abu Ghraib.

Across the street from the prison, Iraqi demonstrators, prisoners' families and political parties set up protest tents, demanding compensation for those who had been abused, trials for the perpetrators, the release of detainees held without evidence, and unhindered access by Iraqi officials.

When the convoy of buses appeared at the prison gates, the crowd surged closer. An American soldier, trying to clear a path, yelled, "Back up!"

The bus convoy moved slowly past the crowd and down the six-lane highway that leads to Baghdad. Parents led away crying children. Hundreds of people jumped into their cars to follow.

Several miles from the prison, but still far from the capital, the convoy broke up, with some buses heading for cities in different directions. Three buses stopped on the highway to link up with other escort vehicles.

As Iraqis who had followed the buses caught up, the bus doors suddenly opened. Out spilled the detainees, flinging themselves into their relatives' arms, kissing the ground, clutching prayer mats and pajamas in homemade bags made of American Army ration wrappers sewn together.

Many appeared elated but also bitter and aggressive

"For three months I endured bad treatment," said one former prisoner, who was still wearing his plastic identification bracelet but, like others, refused to give his name. "They pushed us around and insulted us."

Another man simply said to a reporter as he walked to a waiting car, "America stinks."

A woman went from window to window of the emptying buses, peering in, holding the hand of a little girl who stumbled behind her trying to keep up.

"I am looking for my son," said the woman, Mediha Fariz. "This is his daughter."

Colonel Johnson said the buses had been scheduled to meet with other authorities to take them to their final destinations.

"As I understand it, a large group of Iraqis were at this location when the buses stopped, confusing the situation, and most of the people being released in this got off the buses," he said in an e-mail message responding to questions. "Once this got started, the only prudent thing to do was to let them go rather than attempt to force them to stay on the bus until arriving at the drop-off point."

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Nada Doumani, said a recurring problem had been that people could not find relatives in the detention system, she said.

One of those was Alia Kadim. She stood outside the prison and silently held a picture of her son, 25-year-old Mukhalid Muhammad, who she said has been missing since last May.

She has searched for him in detention centers from Baghdad in central Iraq to Basra in the south. "Once I thought I had found him in Umm Qasr, but then they brought out the wrong man," she said. "Now I just come to the prisoner releases, hoping I can find him this way."