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Iraq's Abu Ghraib Prison, Renamed, Reopens

Abu Ghraib prison in 2004
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi officials on February 21 formally reopened Abu Ghraib prison, which became synonymous with abuse under the U.S. occupation, and in addition to a fresh coat of paint, gave it a new name.

The prison on the western outskirts of Baghdad earned global notoriety after U.S. jailkeepers filmed themselves tormenting and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners less than a year after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The pictures sparked global anger and helped fuel a raging anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and has only started to fade in the past year.

Renamed Baghdad Central Prison, it already has around 400 inmates, said prison director general Alsharif al-Murtadha Abdul al-Mutalib.

"The prison is officially open and we have received inmates. Hundreds are present," Mutalib told a swarm of reporters and cameramen at a media open house at the prison.

Then-U.S. President George W. Bush called the abuse at Abu Ghraib a low point of his presidency. It fanned already widespread opposition in Europe and elsewhere to the U.S.-led war.

Abu Ghraib is in an area that saw heavy fighting during the early years of Iraq's insurgency, and the U.S. military closed it in 2006 after constructing a giant, purpose-built prison camp in the desert on the Kuwaiti border.

Before the Americans arrived, Saddam packed the jail with up to 60,000 inmates and enemies.

The Iraqi authorities running the new prison appeared intent on constructing an entirely different image now.

The newly minted Baghdad prison has modern medical and dental facilities, a computer chatroom and a courtyard for visiting families that contains a children's playground and a water fountain.

Inmates will be able to sew their own clothes in a small sewing factory. The prison also has a mosque and a hair salon that would not look out of place in a city street outside.

Iraqi officials have said it will house just 13,000-14,000 prisoners compared to the tens of thousands it held in the past.

But those good intentions may quickly come under pressure.

Under a bilateral security agreement that calls for a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011, the U.S. military has to hand over around 14,000 Iraqis it is still holding after detaining them as suspected insurgents or militia members.

Most of those detainees are expected to be freed without charge but some will face trials under Iraqi law. Iraq's other prisons are already overcrowded as Iraqi security forces take on increasing responsibility for battling violence.

Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say prisoners in Iraqi custody are often beaten, abused and denied due process.