- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 14, 2010

BAGHDAD | The U.S. this week handed over nearly 30 former members of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, including the longtime international face of the regime, Tariq Aziz, officials said Wednesday.

The announcement comes a day before U.S. authorities are to transfer authority of Camp Cropper, the last American-run detention facility to the Iraqi government.

The transfer marks a major step toward restoring full sovereignty to Iraq as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw its forces from the country by the end of next year.

But it also raised concerns about the fate of Aziz and the other detainees at the hands of a government whose venom for the previous regime has not lessened in the seven years since Saddam was overthrown.

Underscoring the challenges, the military said around 200 will remain in American custody, including eight former regime members, at the request of the Iraqi government.

Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said 26 people were handed over on Monday; he said another 29 were handed over to the Iraqi government 10 months ago.

“As of today, we have received 55 former regime officials, the main one is Tariq Aziz, and the others are the oil and culture ministers,” he said Wednesday, adding that they have also received Saddam’s former secretary, as well as former education and trade ministers.

Aziz, 74, is the most high-profile of the remaining former regime members who were rounded up by U.S. forces in the weeks and months after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam. He was acquitted in one trial but was sentenced last year to 15 years is prison for his role in the 1992 execution of 42 merchants found guilty of profiteering.

The only Christian in Saddam’s mainly Sunni regime, Aziz became internationally known as the dictator’s defender and a fierce American critic as foreign minister after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War, 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 Pope John Paul II at the Vatican just weeks before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion in a bid to head off that conflict.

Defense attorney Badee Izzat Aref, who is based in neighboring Jordan, said Aziz feared the transfer was a death sentence.

“Mr. Aziz told me the following: ‘The Iraqi government will certainly kill me. I fear for my life. I expect I won’t live except for days. I’m afraid they’ll poison my food or won’t give me my medicine to silence me. President Obama is no different from Bush, who has Iraqi blood on his hands,’” Mr. Aref said.

The lawyer said he planned to appeal to Pope Benedict XVI to intercede on Aziz’s behalf.

He said Aziz’s health condition “seriously deteriorated in the last few days.” In January, Aziz suffered a stroke and was rushed to a hospital in Balad, about 40 miles north of Baghdad.

The deputy justice minister said only one of the men transferred to Iraqi custody faced the death penalty — Abdul-Ghani Abdul-Ghafour, a senior Baath Party official who was convicted of his role in crushing the Shiite uprising in 1991.

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