The U.S. military has handed over Tariq Aziz and dozens of other members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle to Iraqi authorities who will assume control Thursday 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 U.S. prison system that has 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. But it also puts to the test a democratically elected government that many believe has learned few positive lessons from the abuses of Saddam's regime.
Despite Abu Ghraib — or perhaps because of reforms in its wake — prisoners have more 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 eye for the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Prisoners in other facilities have repeatedly complained about torture and beatings by the police, as well as overcrowding and poor conditions behind bars.
Camp Cropper, which currently houses about 1,800 inmates on the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad near the international airport, is the last of three U.S. 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 insist 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 told The Associated Press.
Ibrahim said Wednesday that 55 former regime figures have been 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, Ibrahim said.
Former members of Saddam's regime have been 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 traveled 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 U.S.-led invasion in a bid to head off that conflict.
Aziz, who surrendered to U.S. 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 U.S. custody, unlike the others who were hunted down."
He also worried about his father's health, saying the Iraqi wardens might not give the former diplomat, who has suffered a series of strokes, the proper medicine.
Aziz's lawyer, Badee Izzat Aref, said he was trying to ask the Vatican to intervene on behalf of Aziz, who he said had been transferred to a detention facility in Baghdad.
The concerns about the safety of the detainees stem largely from the sectarian nature of Iraq's politics. The Shiite majority once persecuted under Saddam is seen by many Sunnis as seizing on the power they secured following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to exact revenge under the guise of the judicial process.
Iraq has executed a number of high-profile members of Saddam's regime, including "Chemical Ali" al-Majid, Saddam's cousin, who earned his nickname for atrocities such as the deaths of an estimated 5,000 Kurds in a poison gas attack in 1988.
Saddam's execution in December 2006, at the height of the sectarian violence, shocked many observers in and outside the country.
Eight members of Saddam's regime, including former defense minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie, are among the 200 who will remain in U.S. custody. All 200 would have to be turned over to Iraqi control by the time American forces leave in December 2011, unless the two countries work out a separate arrangement.