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As U.S. hands over last prison in Iraq, a glimpse at how detainees lived

BAGHDAD — The U.S. closed one of the most controversial chapters of the Iraq war today when it transferred control of its last remaining prison to the Iraqi government.

BAGHDAD — The U.S. closed one of the most controversial chapters of the Iraq war today when it transferred control of its last remaining prison to the Iraqi government.

US military officials handed over the keys to Camp Cropper, located near Baghdad’s international airport. It’s been renamed Karkh Prison, and will operate under Iraqi authority.

“It is sort of monumental,” said Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, chief US jailer in Iraq, in an interview ahead of the official transfer of authority. “This is the last US Forces large detention facility in Iraq that we’re turning over.”

With the close of Camp Cropper, 1,600 prisoners are being transferred to Iraqi custody, including 26 former regime officials that were handed over earlier this week. Most of them are elderly men, some of whom have spent time gardening and reading at Camp Cropper as they await trial in a much-changed Iraq.

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Throughout the war, 86,000 Iraqis have gone through US military detention. Many were rounded up during the height of the insurgency and released without charge months or years later. Some, thrown in with hardened insurgents, became radicalized at places like Camp Bucca, which closed in September 2009.

Others were subject to abuse, most infamously at Abu Ghraib, which was turned over to Iraqis in 2006. But improved US standards have since earned the respect of Iraqis.

Life for jailed officials: BBC Arabic and growing tomatoes

Despite the handover, the Iraqi government has asked the US military to keep about 200 prisoners, many of them suspected or convicted of terrorism, as well as eight former regime officials – five of whom have been sentenced to death. Those considered the most dangerous detainees are from organizations that didn’t exist before the war – Al Qaeda in Iraq and a host of both Sunni and Shiite groups carefully segregated by the Americans.

Until now, the high-security detainees have been kept in Camp Cropper’s sprawling compounds, where American guards on catwalks wear protective eye wear to avoid being hit by urine or feces occasionally thrown by hostile detainees. But now they’ll be moving into barracks where ex-regime officials have been living in genteel captivity, says Cannon.

The former officials wear civilian clothing rather than the neon yellow outfits of regular prisoners. They’re allowed books, newspapers, BBC Arabic, and the US-funded Iraqi news channel al-Hurra, as well as sports and movie channels. They get together a couple of times a week. Some grow vegetables.

“The new guys that are moving in are not quite the same kind of people … so you can’t have a garden, you can’t have these tools,” says Cannon, who is part of the Michigan National Guard’s 46th Military Police Command.

Concerns about human rights, justice delays, and corruption

Iraqi justice officials say the detainees under the jurisdiction will be treated humanely and with respect. But human rights is widely seen as a foreign-imposed concept and, with many having very personal reasons for hating the former regime, there are few expectations that the former members will be given the same treatment as they have received in US custody.

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In fact, despite the Abu Ghraib scandal over US abuse of prisoners, most Iraqis have come to see US detention as safer and more merciful and fear that prison torture could widen as US involvement diminishes.

There’s also international concern about why the justice system has taken so long to decide the cases of former regime officials.

Some detainees are either fearful – or hopeful – that their case could be influenced by bribery, which is prevalent in the Iraqi justice system. “They know they can’t bribe us – it’s not going to work but once they get into their system the options open up,” says Cannon.

But there’s little danger of them escaping in the meantime, says Cannon, who meets the detainees regularly.

“They’re older guys, they’re more stately guys…. They’re not going to be trying to climb the fence.”