Iraq assumed control of the last U.S.-run prison camp in the country on Thursday, a milestone that casts a spotlight on the Iraqi government's troubled record of caring for inmates amid allegations of torture and overcrowding at Iraqi-run facilities.
The change in command at Camp Cropper — which was renamed Karkh Prison — marks the end of a troubling chapter in the U.S. presence in the country, which was marred in the early years by photographs showing American soldiers abusing inmates at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
It also raised questions about how well prepared the Iraqis are to handle the detainees. 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 the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal.
"The main problem in the Iraqi-run prisons, whether in Baghdad or other provinces, is the incompetent administration," said Abdul-Rahman Najim al-Mashhadani, head of the Iraqi human rights organization Hammurabi. "That leads to violations against prisoners, deliberate or not."
With the handover of the maximum-security prison near the Baghdad international airport, Iraq has taken control of the last of three such prisons formerly controlled by U.S. forces. During a ceremony, the Americans symbolically handed over a key to the prison on the capital's southwestern outskirts, which holds 1,500 detainees.
At the Iraqis' request, 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 Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, who is in charge of U.S. detainee centers in Iraq.
The Americans also will continue to monitor prisoners handed over to Iraqi custody and visit the detention facilities, he said, while insisting the Iraqis are up to the task of taking care of the prisoners.
"There is overwhelming evidence they are equipped, prepared and poised to take over," he said. He described those still held by the Americans as "former regime elements, al-Qaida operatives and very dangerous detainees," who would eventually be handed over to the Iraqi government before American forces pull out of the country entirely by the end of next year.
Many Iraqis don't share his confidence in Iraq's abilities.
Rights groups have raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners in Iraqi custody, most recently in April, when Sunnis alleged they were tortured in secret prisons run by Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces.
'Signs of torture'
Last September, inmates at Abu Ghraib — now called the Baghdad Central Prison — rioted to demand better conditions.
Six men suffocated in May when they were being transported along with 170 other detainees in poorly ventilated government-owned trucks from a prison in Taji, just north of the capital. The deaths of the six men, who were all Sunni Muslims from the western Anbar province, caused outrage in Iraq.
Sabri Jodda, a 34-year-old construction worker and a father of four from the Baghdad Shiite slum of Sadr City died while in Iraqi custody in February, his younger brother Dinar said in an interview. He was picked up by the American forces a year before his death as a suspected member of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia led by an anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, his brother said.
He was transferred to Iraqi custody about four months before his death. A judge ordered his release for lack of evidence, but he died in prison days before he was to be freed, his brother said.
"When we received his body we saw the signs of torture," Jodda said, citing bruises on his legs and back and a cut in his head.
Iraq's Justice Minister Dara Noureddin promised such incidents will not occur in the future. "Our priority is the respect and human treatment of all prisoners without discrimination," he said at the handover ceremony.
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 have said the U.S. had turned over 55 former regime figures over the last year, including ex-Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz earlier this week.
Critics expressed concern the inmates would suffer at the hands of a Shiite-led government bent on revenge against the remnants of Saddam's mainly Sunni inner circle.
"Political prisoners will face a different treatment from the one they received in U.S. custody," said al-Mashhadani of the Hammurabi rights group. "There are some people who have not closed the door on the past."
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.
At least 10 people were killed by bombings across the country Thursday. The deadliest attack took place in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit north of Baghdad, when a car bomb targeting a police patrol exploded, killing three police and three bystanders, police said.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.