U.S. transfers last prison under its control to Iraq

Event marks a milestone in move toward the country's sovereignty seven years after invasion

Published July 15, 2010 12:48PM (EDT)

The United States handed over the last detention facility under its control to Iraqi authorities on Thursday, a milestone in Iraq's push for complete sovereignty seven years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Iraq's assumption of control over the base near the international airport on the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad also marks the end of a troubling chapter in the U.S. presence in the country -- one defined for years by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. With the handover, Iraq has now assumed control of the last of three such prisons controlled by U.S. forces.

The transfer raises questions about how well prepared the Iraqis are to handle the detainees, with concerns about sectarian tensions spilling over into the prison system. Inmates in Iraqi detention facilities have repeatedly complained about torture and beatings by the police, as well as overcrowding and poor conditions behind bars.

Prisoners in U.S. custody, meanwhile, have benefited from reforms in the wake of photographs showing mistreatment of inmates by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib in 2004.

The American general in charge of detainee centers in Iraq said the Iraqis were ready for the added responsibility.

"There is overwhelming evidence they are equipped, prepared and poised to take over," Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon said, stressing that the detainees still being held by the U.S. were under Iraqi jurisdiction.

Camp Cropper held members of Saddam's ousted regime, who were housed in separate quarters from the other prisoners. The ex-dictator was kept in a cell there until his December 2006 execution.

Iraqi officials renamed the base Karkh Prison, which currently houses 1,500 detainees.

The United States will continue to hold 200 other detainees, including eight former regime members who will be kept in a separate part of the facility dubbed Compound 5, said Cannon. With the exception of those 200, there are no more prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq, he said.

Iraq's assumption of control over the base comes at a critical juncture for the country. The U.S. is readying to pull out all combat forces by September, leaving a force of some 50,000 ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of next year.

Iraqi officials, meanwhile, are locked in a power struggle over forming a new government four months after no clear winner emerged from the March 7 elections. The ensuing political vacuum has prompted complaints from Iraqis that the politicians are more interested in their political welfare than the national interest.

A day ahead of the handover of the prison, Iraqi officials said the U.S. had turned over 55 former regime figures, including ex-Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, to Iraqi custody since last year.

Iraqi officials -- who have endured a few black eyes of their own from disclosures of secret prisons and detainee abuse -- played down concerns that they would embrace their new responsibilities with anything less than full respect for detainee rights.

"We will make sure this prison is a model for all prisons," said Iraq's Minister of Justice Dara Noureddin .

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, in comments to The Associated Press, said all the detainees handed over by the Americans are assured their rights.

"They will be tried fairly, transparently and truthfully" under Iraqi laws, al-Dabbagh said, in a clear indication that the government plans to continue with the trials of the former dictator's henchmen.

By Barbara Surk

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Iraq Iraq War