ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ. It was a scene that was unthinkable and unbelievable and Iraq is still in a state of stunned jubilation. Thousands of people jammed the streets in front of one of Iraq’s most notorious prisons today just moments after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced a “complete, comprehensive and final amnesty” for all prisoners, including those accused of political crimes and crimes against the state.
Earlier in the day word spread through Baghdad that the Iraqi president was going to address the nation with what several people said was “good news.” Shortly after noon, regular programming on all of Iraq’s television stations was interrupted by an announcement by Iraq’s Information Minister Mohammed Al Sahaf.
“Prisoners, detainees will be set free immediately,” Sahaf said in a statement attributed to the Iraqi President. He said the amnesty decree applied to “anyone imprisoned or arrested for political or any other reason.”
In another decree, the amnesty was extended to Arab prisoners, excluding those held or sentenced on charges of spying for Israel and the United States.
Sahaf said the amnesty was intended as a gift to the Iraqi people for their support of Saddam in last week’s referendum, in which the president claimed a 100-percent ‘yes’ vote.
“It’s a unanimity that others are incapable of believing and it is the greatest truth of this age from this great, honest, warm people,” the statement said. “The referendum honored us before the whole world.”
Throughout Baghdad, cars stopped in traffic as horns blared throughout the main streets of the Iraqi capital. The highway soon filled with caravans of cars heading west toward Abu Ghraib.
Outside the prison gates, thousands of people danced and sang, mainly songs of praise to Saddam Hussein. Many people had looks of total disbelief on their faces, clearly shocked at the scene. Cars stopped in the middle of the highway in front of the prison, as many simply abandoned their vehicles to join the crowd. Eventually the mob swelled to such a size that the prison guards had to open the main gate. Floods of people began scattering throughout the massive complex, scaling walls and climbing poles to make their way inside the cells. Mothers and wives frantically wandered around looking for their imprisoned loved ones.
In almost any other country, this scene would have undoubtedly erupted into a riot. No one here we spoke with could ever remember a time when such a massive group of people was permitted to run freely as part of anything other than a pro-government rally. And at times that is exactly what the scene looked like. Deafening chants of “Our blood, our souls, we’ll give for you Saddam” rang out throughout the compound. Some of the newly released prisoners cut their own forearms with knives as they chanted.
In one wing of the prison, the crowd massively outnumbered the guards and began running through wings of the prison that had not yet been opened. Gunshots rang out and guards began beating people with large sticks. The crowd began to scatter, but ultimately shouts of “salaam” calmed the situation. It was an incredible scene: Prisoners kissing their onetime jailers, dancing in joy in a place that for most of the men represented pure misery.
Inside the emptied prison, huge dormitories contained the abandoned belongings of the newly liberated men. Potato sacks and filthy blankets lay out in straight lines with metal bowls, shoes, photographs of loved ones. Guards smiled as they repeated, “Finished, finished, finished.”
One of the most shocking events of the day (and this is saying a lot) did not happen at Abu Ghraib. It happened in Washington. US Secretary of State Colin Powell, interviewed Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” said the amnesty was a political ploy by Saddam.
“This is typical of this man’s use of human beings for these political purposes of his,” Powell said. “This is the kind of manipulation he uses to try to paint himself as something other than what he is, a brutal dictator.”
It almost sounded as if Powell was suggesting that the men should have remained in “Saddam’s prisons.” Standing in the midst of the prison compound, watching thousands of men pour out of the cells it was impossible to imagine such a scene taking place in the US.
At Abu Ghraib, people didn’t seem too concerned with “political purposes.”
Throughout the prison compound, mothers hugged their sons. Fathers carried their children. Tears were shed, songs were sung. One prisoner had to be restrained by his brothers after learning that his mother had died while he was in jail. Three hours after the prison gates burst open, a massive column of prisoners stretched for what seemed like a mile. Many men carried huge plastic sacks on their backs; others dragged large metal chests. Scores seemed to have abandoned everything and walked quickly toward the exit. Every one of them with a look of tired astonishment on their faces.
“It’s a happy bright new day,” one of the released prisoners told us. “I want to say thank you to our President Saddam Hussein for his gift and presenting a new life for a new people, opening a new page in the new future. I’m very, very happy because I am going home to my people, to my family, my friends–to my beautiful wife and babies.”
Another man, who said he had been locked up for “a month and 2 days,” began to describe how he felt before abruptly stopping mid-sentence. He then looked around as if he thought the whole thing might be a mistake–that a guard may come and tell him, “Not you, you just got here.” He smiled politely, slung his bags over his back and bolted for the gates.
As the day wound down, a camouflage Iraqi Army helicopter descended on the prison. Rumor spread that Saddam was actually on board. Not likely. But that wouldn’t have been necessary. The disbelief was already there.
JEREMY SCAHILL is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.