BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government said Tuesday that it had closed the Abu Ghraib prison, the site of a notorious prisoner abuse scandal during the American 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 if 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 Falluja, 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.
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For Iraqis, the prison has a long and grim history as a place of abuse under successive authorities — Mr. Hussein’s brutal rule, the American occupation and, critics say, the current government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Human rights advocates say that Mr. Maliki has filled Iraq’s prisons, including Abu Ghraib, with young Sunni men, many who have ties to insurgent groups but many others who are innocent.
In late 2002, as the American invasion loomed, Mr. Hussein emptied the infamous prison, creating scenes of jubilation in the streets. In 2004, the revelation that American 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 Syria, or ISIS, 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.
Since the beginning of the year, insurgents have controlled Falluja and other areas of Anbar, including sections of Ramadi, the provincial capital. The Iraqi Army, which has sought to use loyal tribesmen inside Anbar communities as proxy fighters, giving them American-supplied guns and ammunition, has held off on a full-out assault. But after three months, the fighting still rages, tens of thousands of Anbar residents have been displaced — some fleeing to southern Iraq, some to Baghdad and others to the relative safety of the Kurdish north — and the Iraqi security forces have appeared to make few gains.
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.
Lately, the fighting has crept closer to the Abu Ghraib prison, with frequent gunfights in the streets near the compound, said a security official, leaving villagers caught in the crossfire.
A local grocer, who would give only his first name, Ahmed, said in an interview on Tuesday: “We heard today that they have closed the prison, but what about us, the people of Abu Ghraib, what will happen to us? Will they transform us in to another country if they can’t protect this area?
“We see gunmen in the streets every day, and a few hours later we see the security forces. We don’t know what is happening here.”