By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 16, 2010; A10
BAGHDAD -- A U.S. general on Thursday handed an oversize key to Iraq's justice minister and relinquished control of the nation's last American-run detention center.
That moment closed a controversial chapter of the U.S.-led occupation, after seven years in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have passed through American detention centers. Often they were never charged with a crime. At Abu Ghraib, some were infamously abused and humiliated.
Now human rights groups and Iraqis worry that detainees will be subjected to abuse in Iraq's crowded prison system. Torture was rampant during the reign of Saddam Hussein, deposed in the U.S.-led invasion. In the past two years, hundreds of torture cases in Iraqi facilities were confirmed by the country's Human Rights Ministry. This year, a secret prison was uncovered where inmates had been beaten and sodomized.
"Unfortunately, Iraq is prone to detention and torture abuses, whether it's the former regime, the occupying powers or now the Iraqi government," said Samer Muscati, an Iraq expert at Human Rights Watch. "Under international law, you're not supposed to transfer detainees if they will get tortured. But how long can the Americans hold on to them? There is no ideal solution, but the Americans have a responsibility."
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said his forces would continue to train Iraqi security officials and prison guards to respect human rights. He called past abuses by U.S. forces mistakes that resulted from a lack of training and preparation. "Abu Ghraib is a lesson that we weren't prepared," he said in a briefing this week. "We made some real errors. We've learned from it and we've moved on from it, and that's the most important thing."
Even after the U.S. military transferred Camp Cropper and its 1,500 detainees to the Iraqi government on Thursday, it will retain control of about 260 detainees who are considered especially dangerous. Among the men at Cropper are eight officials from Hussein's government who are on death row.
At the ceremony, Iraqi Justice Minister Dara Noor al-Din pledged that the prisoners now in Iraqi custody would be treated with respect and would not be abused. He warned that political parties had no right to interfere in the prison system, which has been a problem in the new Iraq. "The days of mistreating and abusing prisoners are gone," he said. "I ask that you treat every prisoner with dignity and honor."
Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, the deputy commander for detainee operations, said that the U.S. military would continue to train its Iraqi counterparts on international standards for human rights and that it is prepared to look at cases of alleged abuse. "We've given detainees world-class care," Cannon said Thursday, adding that it would take time for Iraqis to offer the same standard of care as American-run facilities. "If you want to be in custody, you'd probably want to be in our custody," he added.
The transfer of detainee operations is part of a broader shift in responsibility as the U.S. draws down its forces in Iraq, with all combat troops expected to be out of the country by the end of August. That move is broadly popular among Americans. In a new Washington Post-ABC News survey, 71 percent approve of the removal of combat forces, and 60 percent agree with the decision to keep 50,000 noncombat troops in Iraq in a supporting role.
In Iraq, views of the transition are mixed, with many deeply apprehensive about the future of the fledgling democracy. Even Iraqis who have spent years demanding a return to sovereignty and the exit of foreign forces concede, reluctantly, that the U.S. detention system post-Abu Ghraib had its advantages.
"When someone is in U.S. custody, at least we know where they are. With the Iraqi prisons, we have no idea what will happen to them," said Hayder Ali, 25, a security guard in Baghdad. His cousin spent months in U.S. detention centers and is now in a Baghdad prison. "There is no torture in U.S. prisons now, not like our prisons."
But men who spent years in yellow jumpsuits at U.S. detention centers and were never charged with a crime said they would never forget, or forgive.
Abu Mariam is one of those men. U.S. and Iraqi forces detained him in a controversial raid of a Shiite mosque in 2006 that left more than a dozen people dead. In 2007, Abu Mariam, a follower of fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was acquitted in an Iraqi court of charges related to several killings. Despite his acquittal, the U.S. military kept him for two more years because it deemed him a security threat.
"I was isolated from the world. I am dead inside. They killed me 100 times," said Abu Mariam, who would allow only his nom de guerre to be used because he is worried about being detained again. "Now Iraqi forces learn from them."
Special correspondents Jinan Hussein and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.