The U.S. military handed over its last prison facility, Camp Cropper, to the Iraqi government Thursday in a ceremony that all but ends America's role as a keeper of Iraqi detainees.
The event, presided over by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon and Iraqi Justice Minister Dara Noureddin, included references to both nations' checkered record with Iraqi detainees, infamously at Abu Ghraib prison, where detainee abuse by U.S. personnel was revealed in 2004 and where inmates had been brutally treated in earlier years under Saddam Hussein.
Noureddin struck a somber note in discussing the current challenges facing a system that has been dogged by allegations of abuse, overcrowding and other problems.
Cannon, however, praised the U.S. and Iraqi governments for their management of the detainee populations. Though he acknowledged the mistakes of the past, he painted the future in bright strokes and was bullish about the Iraqi side's progress.
"There is overwhelming evidence they are equipped, prepared and poised to take over," he said.
Cannon promoted Iraq's readiness for the U.S. military's departure, with the U.S. presence to be downsized to 50,000 noncombat personnel next month and all American forces to be withdrawn by the end of next year.
"Success is not only measured in the security gains, but in the enhanced capability and capacity of the ministries," the general said. "This is the first day of a new era, one in which all elements of the Iraqi criminal justice system are able to assert their role in providing for the continued safety and security of the Iraqi people."
Cannon said that the U.S. government had enough advisors in place to watch for abuses committed in Iraqi detention facilities.
Camp Cropper, a small base in an archipelago of military compounds at Baghdad airport, holds 1,500 detainees. It was renamed Karkh Prison.
The U.S. military will continue to operate a wing called Compound 5 with 200 detainees, including eight members of Hussein's government. Most of those detainees are members of armed groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq. Any remaining detainees will be handed over to full Iraqi custody by the end of 2011.
Noureddin, even as he welcomed the milestone in Iraq's transition to full sovereignty and touted his ministry, acknowledged the reputation of the Iraqi penal system.
"The days of mistreating and abusing prisoners are gone," said Nourredin, who pledged that the detention centers would not be subject to interference from political sides. "I ask that you treat every prisoner with dignity and honor."
The Iraqi detention system continues to struggle despite efforts to crack down on abuses. In the last year, detainees at Abu Ghraib, which Iraqi authorities had taken over, rioted over poor living conditions. In May, six detainees were suffocated when they traveled in the back of a government truck from a prison in Taji. A secret prison attached to the prime minister's military office was discovered in April, and allegations of torture abounded.
Iraqis regularly complain about extortion and abuses in interior, justice and defense ministry detention facilities. Last fall, a Sunni Muslim paramilitary leader who had fought alongside U.S. troops against Al Qaeda in Iraq described how he had been placed in jail facilities where he was exposed to members of Shiite Muslim militias and Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters. The man, who spoke by phone from jail, said he and his supporters had to fight their enemies inside the facilities to survive.
In southern Iraq, where many members of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia were jailed in 2008 and 2009, a fighter speaking by phone from a detention center last fall said that Iraqi security forces had beaten his fellow militia members during the early days of their incarcerations.