Notebook: Abu Ghraib A Prison No More

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann filed this report from Baghdad.

No, the cause wasn't the jailbreak of all time. But Abu Ghraib prison, the notorious symbol of abuse, no longer has a single inmate.

The Iraqi government says all 3,000 detainees have been transferred to other facilities. And everyone involved, from Prime Minister Maliki's government here, to the prisoners, to the U.S. military, has to be relieved.

You remember the infamous pictures. Naked prisoners in pornographic positions. Others cowering before snarling dogs. And leering, smiling U.S. soldiers, some of whom were convicted, others disciplined, in the scandal.

But Abu Ghraib's history of infamy goes way back before those shocking snapshots. During Saddam Hussein's rule, Iraqi inmates were systematically abused, tortured and executed at the facility. There are mass graves on the site of the prison. From time to time, Saddam himself reportedly would show up, looking on happily as his political enemies were tortured.

When "60 Minutes" broke the story, and first showed the photos, the reaction was outrage. Critics worldwide stepped up their criticism of the U.S. war in Iraq. The images offended the Arab world, playing into the worst stereotypes and suspicions of how U.S. troops were treating Iraqis. The insurgency got worse; the photos became a recruiting tool for jihadists and terrorists.

There was also outrage from some critics toward the media, CBS in particular, for broadcasting the photos. The argument was that somehow spotlighting what was clearly wrong – so distinctly un-American – aided and abetted the enemy cause. But I have yet to hear a single U.S. commander share that view, even officers quite blunt in their complaints about media coverage. This was a story that needed to be told.

But the sad truth is that every war has needless cruelties. This one in Iraq is no exception. But keep in mind something else: Abu Ghraib never represented the vast majority of American soldiers here, the men or women in uniform a half-world from home, toughing through the stress of combat and triple-degree desert heat. Whatever anyone's view on the war itself, they deserve credit and thanks for their service. But the abusers deserved to be exposed. And punished. The open question is whether the Pentagon's on-going investigation will reach further up the chain of command. Was the mistreatment ordered from above, and if so, from how high up?

Abu Graib is actually a series of buildings, in one of the most dangerous parts of west Baghdad. Insurgents have repeatedly mortared it. If you wanted to drive there, trust me, the threat of a roadside bomb would never be far from your thoughts. And while no one seems to know what the Iraqi government will do with it now, it's safe to say its future could hardly be worse its past.

By Mark Strassmann
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