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Iraq Prison Break
Saddam, the Model

Remember that John Burns story in the New York Times? The dateline is especially ironic: “ABU GHRAIB, Iraq, Oct. 20 [2002]—Tens of thousands of Iraqi prisoners stormed out of their cells to freedom today after President Saddam Hussein declared an amnesty that appeared to have all but emptied a sprawling, nationwide network of prisons that have served as the grim charnel houses of one of the world's harshest police states. At the Abu Ghraib prison, a sprawling compound on the desert floor 20 miles west of Baghdad that has become a notorious symbol of fear among Iraqis for its history of mass executions and allegations of torture, the heavy steel gates gave way under the crush of a huge crowd of relatives who rushed to the jail within an hour of the amnesty broadcast. All semblance of order vanished as a cheering mob surged through the compound, in some cases joining prison guards in smashing cell-block walls to free weeping inmates. But some inmates were killed in the chaos today.” That was four years ago. Today’s New York Times, John Burns again: “Iraq’s new government said Tuesday that it would release 2,500 detainees, nearly 10 percent of those held in Iraqi and American detention centers, and that it would adopt a ‘national reconciliation’ plan to reintegrate former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party into society.”

What both amnesties have in common is that taste of desperation that Burns, on both occasions, caught very well. In 2002, he wrote that Hussein “and his aging inner circle in the Revolutionary Command Council” were “concerned that the specter of war with the United States could cause a crumbling of loyalties that could bring the government tumbling down from within.” There is no more than a nominal difference between that line and these two details in today’s report, a few paragraphs apart: “In a move that underscored the tide of violence that has many Iraqis saying they preferred life under Mr. Hussein's harsh dictatorship, Iraq's Health Ministry confirmed figures on Tuesday that showed 6,002 bodies, most victims of violence, were delivered to Baghdad's main morgue in the first five months of this year. The figure for May, 1,375, was more than double the figure for May last year. Morgue officials have said that as many as 20 of the daily average of more than 40 bodies that arrive every day, many of them blindfolded, with tied wrists and showing signs of torture, remain unclaimed.” And, as if in an afterthought in the penultimate paragraph: “Mr. Maliki's first weeks as Iraq's leader have been burdened by his failure to win approval from rival factions in the government for nominees to the cabinet's top security posts.” Seven months after the new government was allegedly formed, it still can’t agree on who’s running what, still can’t function past its U.S. taxpayer-funded army of mercenary-bodyguards. All pretensions of the Pentagon to the contrary, Iraq is so out of control that it is crumbling from within. The corrosion begins in the prime minister’s own vacuum-rich corridors. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum has just opened an exhibit called “Gulag.” It’s focused on the Soviet Union’s decades of degradation-by-labor-camp. A more timely exhibit might have been called “Abu Ghraib,” and depicted America’s complicit role in reinvesting that bleak place with new, grim meaning Arabs will not soon forget. It is one of the great reversals of the last sixty years—how the prison, once symbolizing Saddam’s atrocities, has come to stand for an American Bastille. And all in the name of “freedom.” That word, too, has undergone a great reversal, with Bush as the common denominator.

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