BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi government said Tuesday that it had closed the Abu Ghraib prison, site of a notorious prisoner abuse scandal during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, because of fears that it could be overrun by Sunni insurgents who have gained strength over the past 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 whether the prison might reopen if the Sunni insurgency is tamed. But it nevertheless underscored the rapid deterioration of security in Iraq since the start of the year, when insurgents captured Fallujah, 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.
For Iraqis, the prison has a long and grim history as a place of abuse under successive authorities -- Saddam's brutal rule, the U.S. occupation and, critics say, the current government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. Human rights advocates say 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 U.S. invasion loomed, Saddam emptied the infamous prison, creating scenes of jubilation in the streets. In 2004, the revelation that U.S. soldiers had tortured detainees there galvanized Iraqis' anger toward their occupiers, and probably forever tainted the legacy of the U.S. 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 U.S. authorities and the Maliki 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 al-Qaida-tied militants attacked the prison.
Some of those escapees have become top leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now an al-Qaida 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 year's start, insurgents have controlled Fallujah 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, 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, others to Baghdad or the relative safety of the Kurdish north.