WORLD> Middle East
Iraq to open Saddam abuse museum at Abu Ghraib
Updated: 2008-09-05 09:22

BAGHDAD - The notorious Abu Ghraib prison is getting a facelift: work to reopen the facility and construct a museum documenting Saddam Hussein's crimes -- but not the abuses committed there by US guards.

An Iraqi corrections officer looks over the 'hard site' of the Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq in this Saturday, July 10, 2004 file photo. The Iraqi government is planning to open a museum inside the notorious prison to document the crimes committed there during Saddam Hussein's regime. [Agencies] 

The sprawling complex, which has not held prisoners since 2006, will be refurbished with the goal of taking new inmates in about a year, the government said Thursday.

Also, a section of the 280-acre site just west of Baghdad will be converted into the museum featuring execution chamber exhibits and other displays of torture tools used by Saddam's regime -- including an iron chain used to tie prisoners together.

But Iraq's predominantly Shiite government has no plans to document the US military abuse scandal that erupted in 2004 with the publication of photographs that shocked the world: grinning US soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, some naked, being held on leashes or in painful and sexually humiliating positions.

Iraq's deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim, said that the American brutality was "nothing" compared with the violence and atrocities of Saddam and his Sunni-dominated Baath party.

A US soldier walks between cells containing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad,in this May 17, 2004, file photo. The Iraqi government is planning to open a museum inside the notorious prison to document the crimes committed there during Saddam Hussein's regime. [Agencies]

"There is evidence of the crimes (Saddam committed) such as the hooks used to dangle prisoners, tools used to beat and torture prisoners and ... the execution chambers in which 50 or 100 people were killed at once," he said.

The government's announcement did not detail the full scope of the refurbishing work and didn't say whether the museum would be open to the public. Ibrahim did not offer any further information on the plans.

It's also unclear whether Sunni groups and others will attempt to press for the US abuses to be added by the government, which is keen to highlight Saddam's heavy hand but could be wary of upsetting its allies in Washington.

Nevertheless, the 4-decade-old prison is now best known as the setting for one of America's lowest moments of the war.

The photos from Abu Ghraib brought another serious stain to America's reputation after worldwide protests against the March 2003 invasion. They also discredited Washington's claims that it was trying to build a country based on rule of law and respect for human rights on the wreckage of dictatorship.

In all, 11 US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws and five others were disciplined.

But for Iraqis, stories of mistreatment at Abu Ghraib were nothing new. It had long been a symbol of horror and despair.

The gray, stonewalled prison was one of the darkest symbols of Saddam's regime -- a place where people only suspected of plotting against him would disappear, be tortured and executed without trial.

Former inmates have told of chemical and biological weapons experiments on prisoners, and the execution of hundreds in the 1990s as part of a campaign by Saddam's son, Qusai, to ease crowding. Others have spoken of tiny isolation cells where political detainees were kept for up to a year without seeing a single person.

Several former prisoners later testified during Saddam's trial about torture at Abu Ghraib. The deposed leader was convicted and hanged in 2006 for ordering the killings of more than 140 Shiite Muslims.

No one ever knew how many prisoners Abu Ghraib held during Saddam's era. In the early 1990s, however, tens of thousands of people would gather outside the walls each week to visit inmates.

Shortly before the March 2003 US-led invasion, Saddam released thousands of inmates from the facility, including murderers, rapists and thieves. Many of them were believed to have returned to crime or joined the insurgency after the regime collapsed.

President Bush offered to tear down the prison after the American abuse scandal broke. Bush promised to build a new prison "as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning" and to eliminate the legacy of torture and abuse.

But Iraqi officials reminded the Americans that the prison was, after all, Iraqi government property. Destroying it would be a needless waste of resources, the government said.

The Iraqi government took final control of Abu Ghraib in September 2006 after the last of the inmates had been transferred to other prisons. In addition to adding the museum, the government plans to rehabilitate the prison's main building, outer fence and two dozen prison towers.

Meanwhile, in eastern Baghdad on Thursday, a roadside bomb killed two American soldiers, the US military said.

The casualties were the first suffered by the American military in the capital since Aug. 28, when a soldier was killed in a roadside bombing. Another soldier died Tuesday in Baghdad of non-hostile causes, the military said.

At least 4,153 US military members have now died in the Iraq war, according to an AP count.