US hands over prison keys to Iraq

US hands over prison keys to Iraq

The US military handed over Tariq Aziz and dozens of other members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle to Iraqi authorities who will assume control today of the last American-run detention facility in the country.

Although the Americans will continue to hold 200 problematic detainees, the changing of the guard at Camp Cropper will mean the end of a mammoth US prison system that processed more than 100,000 Iraqis in the seven years since the fall of Baghdad.

It will also close a chapter on one of the most bitter legacies of the war, the shocking images in 2004 of prisoners being abused by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

For Iraq, the transfer of detainees marks a milestone on the road to full sovereignty. However, it also puts to the test a democratically elected government that many believe learned few positive lessons from the abuses of Saddam's regime.

Despite Abu Ghraib - or perhaps because of reforms in its wake - prisoners recently said they receive far better treatment in American custody than in Iraqi jails.

The revelation this year of a makeshift Iraqi prison where Sunni detainees were allegedly tortured was a black mark on the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Prisoners in other facilities repeatedly complained about torture and beatings by the police, as well as overcrowding and poor conditions behind bars.

Camp Cropper, which houses about 1,800 inmates on the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad near the international airport, is the last of three US prisons handed over to Iraqi control.

Camp Bucca was transferred last September, and Camp Taji, a detention facility at an air base just north of Baghdad, in January. Iraqi officials insisted they are ready.

"We have been running dozens of prisons, and we are confident of our ability to run all prisons," Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said.

Mr Ibrahim said 55 former regime figures were handed over to Iraq - 26 this week and 29 about 10 months ago.

Only one faces the death penalty: Abdul-Ghani Abdul-Ghafour, a senior Baath Party official convicted for his role in crushing a Shiite uprising in 1991, Mr Ibrahim said.

Former members of Saddam's regime were housed in separate quarters from the other prisoners, with a communal TV and a vegetable garden that some of them use to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs.

A fluent English speaker and the only Christian in Saddam's mainly Sunni regime, Aziz, 74, became internationally known as the dictator's defender and a fierce American critic as foreign minister after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and later as a deputy prime minister who frequently travelled abroad on diplomatic missions.

His meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker in Geneva in January 1991 failed to prevent the 1991 Gulf War.

Years later, Aziz met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican weeks before the March 2003 US-led invasion in a bid to head off that conflict.

Aziz, who surrendered to US forces about a month after the war started, was acquitted in one trial but was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for his role in the 1992 execution of 42 merchants found guilty of profiteering.

His son, Ziad, expressed fear for his father's life, saying the Shiite-led government was bent on revenge.

"I'm surprised. The Americans have a moral responsibility toward my father and the others," he said. "He turned himself in to US custody, unlike the others who were hunted down."

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