BAGHDAD | 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.
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 repeatedly have complained about torture and beatings by the police, as well as overcrowding and poor conditions behind bars.
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,” Army 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.
The base was renamed Karkh Prison. During a ceremony, the Americans symbolically handed over a key to the prison, which now holds 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, Gen. Cannon said. 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 interests of a nation still struggling with near daily bombings and shootings.