ABU GHRAIB, Iraq - The regime of Saddam Hussein sent Amr Abdul Atif to Abu Ghraib prison in 1999 for forging passports. The American military sent him there again in February for offenses yet to be made public.
He is 34, the father of three boys. He was behind the brown prison walls first because of an Iraqi president who made it a symbol of his oppression, and now because of an U.S. administration that said it had invaded the country to liberate the oppressed.
Atif's mother, Rasmia Shakir, suggests she harbors no doubt about which government is worse. Under Hussein, she visited her son every Monday and took him food and clean clothes. Under the Americans, she has not seen her son since his arrest.
She has carefully studied the now infamous photographs of smiling American soldiers abusing Iraqi inmates. Her relief mixing with disappointment, she did not see her son. He wasn't there, but she was left to wonder if he was suffering like the men in the photographs.
Shakir came to the fortified gates of Abu Ghraib yesterday, as she has done every day for the past week, and stood in the shadows of the guard towers. She spent another day wondering about his fate.
"The Americans said they were coming here to do us good," Shakir said under an unrelenting sun. "If we had known then what we know now, we wouldn't have let Saddam go."
A dozen people yesterday among about 50 waiting outside Abu Ghraib for word of relatives inside told stories that shared certain themes: The detainees, family members said, had been plucked off the street by roving military patrols and were guilty only of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
And, the relatives said, whatever the horrors committed in Abu Ghraib under Hussein, nothing could be worse than the Americans' degrading photos of abuse.
Hassan Rifam, standing outside the prison walls, carried military papers that showed he had been a brigadier general in the Iraqi army. A brother-in-law, he said, had been imprisoned in Abu Ghraib four years after he beat up a cab driver in a traffic dispute. He was found guilty of unknown charges after a secret trial and executed, his body dumped in a ditch.
"I was upset," Rifam said. "People were killed here for nothing." And he was back at the prison, trying to visit his teen-age son and a cousin who he said had been arrested by the Americans three months ago.
"It's true, under Saddam we had murder and torture and mass graves," Rifam said. "But these pictures that have come out are worse. Everything is worse now. Americans should show the Iraqis respect. I'm humiliated."
American officials have scrambled to assure Iraqis that the actions depicted by the photographs were isolated incidents, but officials have also acknowledged that about 20 investigations are under way into alleged wrongdoing here and in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military spokesman here, defended the arrests as necessary to restore order, and said each detainee has been before a magistrate.
"Now you talk about many innocents being swept up," Kimmitt said in response to a question from an Iraqi reporter. "You sort of give the impression that somehow Abu Ghraib is a place used for people we just grab off the street who are innocently walking up and down window-shopping.
"I would think the security situation in this country would demonstrate otherwise," Kimmitt said. "These are the people that are inside Abu Ghraib. These are the people who represent an imperative threat to this nation."
Abu Ghraib covers 280 acres of the dusty flatlands west of Baghdad. Most signs of the city are gone, the cityscape of multistory buildings and highways replaced by abode huts and roadside stands.
Immediately after the war, Abu Ghraib became a haven of former soldiers who had discarded their uniforms ahead of the advancing U.S. army and deserted. The highway near the prison became a looters market, where automatic weapons were sold as freely as fresh fruit.
The prison itself, large enough to house tens of thousands of inmates, stood empty for months after the war. Looters stole prison bars, toilets, even the rope used to hang the condemned. Weeping mothers returned to find the graves of missing sons.
Relatives waiting outside the prison said that, as during Hussein's time, authorities do not notify anyone that has a person has been detained. Family members go to the city's convention center to learn if a person has been detained, and where he is being held.
They then come here, wait in line, submit to a search, and then have their names placed on a list, for being assigned a time for a scheduled visit on some other date.
Hardin Rashid, 23, came to Abu Ghraib with the proper paperwork from the convention center to find his brother.
In the seven months since his brother's arrest, Rashid said, he still hasn't been given a date for a visit. "I don't know why he was arrested and nobody will tell us anything," he said. "The soldiers told us not to worry, he would be out the next day. Then he went to a different prison. Now it's been months."
Even the relatives allowed inside sound unhappy when they leave. Suaad Majid Hamid said she saw her husband April 9, five months after his arrest. She was bused to a tent where 30 prisoners were lined up on one side of a glass divider. The visitors were on the other side and were allowed to stay an hour.
"Everybody was talking at once," Hamid said. "You said 10 words and you heard one."
Jaffar Mahmoud Salman, a 41-year-old police officer who works closely with the 214th Military Police Company, came in search of two nephews arrested two months. He held a letter from the company commander, asking that Salman be allowed inside to help with his nephew's defense.
"The Americans that I know and work with, if they see a prisoner in the police station without food, they dig into their own pockets and tell us to feed them," Salman said.
With that, he approached a checkpoint, ignored pleas that he step back and managed to hand over his letter.
The soldiers let him inside.
Rasmia Shakir, still waiting to see her son Atif, angrily watched as other visitors streamed into the prison, leaving her behind once again.
"It's been 70 days since he was moved to Abu Ghraib," Shakir said. "I have no idea if he is dead or alive, whether he's OK."
Shakir said her son was treated relatively well as a prisoner during Hussein's time because her son was a Baath party member. His cell resembled his room at home, she said, and he was allowed a refrigerator and gifts of food.
"Saddam was a good man," Shakir said. "But if you crossed him, he killed you."
She hired a lawyer who was admitted into the prison yesterday. She was waiting for him to re-emerge when a bus filled with detainees about to be released drove out of the prison, on its way to their homes in Basra, in the south.
Shakir joined a stampede of families and stretched out her right arm, palm up to the sky, as if in a plea to God for her son.
Then she turned away and lowered her head. Her son would not be on the bus. She walked back to her car and drove away, not waiting for her lawyer to emerge with news.