BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military closed down its largest detention center in Iraq on Thursday as it continued to release or hand to Iraqi authorities the thousands of people it has held since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The closure of Camp Bucca, a sprawling complex in Iraq’s southern desert near Kuwait, was a major step toward the unwinding of the $300 million-a-year U.S. detention program, as agreed under a bilateral security pact signed last year.
Bucca once housed as many as 14,000 detainees, the majority held for months or years without any charges made against them and with no way to defend themselves in court. Some were kept in steel shipping containers with a toilet and air conditioning.
The number of detainees dwindled before the camp’s formal closure at 3:22 a.m. (0022 GMT), when a transport plane carrying the last group of 180 detainees left Basra for another military prison in Baghdad, a U.S. military statement said.
The Iraq-U.S. security pact, which also calls for all U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by 2012, obliges the United States to release detainees who do not face Iraqi arrest warrants or detention orders.
In total, around 100,000 people have been detained by U.S. forces since 2003.
Following Bucca’s closure, around 8,300 detainees remain in U.S. custody in Iraq, either in Camp Cropper near Baghdad airport or at Camp Taji north of the Iraqi capital.
The security pact sets no specific date for the transfer of all detainees to Iraqi authorities to be concluded, but U.S. commanders say they expect it to occur in January. Camp Taji is scheduled to be handed over to Iraq on January 10.
“If I have to shift this transition to the right because they’re not ready we’ll shift it to the right,” Brigadier General David Quantock, commander of U.S. detention operations, told reporters. “If they’re not ready (for Taji) they’re not getting it.”
Bucca opened in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004, when pictures of U.S. soldiers abusing and sexually humiliating detainees at the west Baghdad prison shocked the world and helped fuel a vicious insurgency.
Camp Cropper is located within the largest U.S. military base in Iraq, next to Baghdad airport. Most detainees, separated according to their Sunni or Shi’ite faith, are free to move around the small open-air compounds they live in, surrounded by steel fences, razor wire and catwalks patrolled by soldiers.
They have access to computer and sewing classes, and each one is given a copy of the Koran. Prisoners viewed as particularly dangerous are kept in isolation.
Quantock said the military detention operation at its peak cost the U.S. government around half a billion dollars a year. That had come down to around $300 million a year now and if everything went as planned, his operation would have only 122 beds for detainees by August next year, he said.
The policy of detaining suspects without trial has been a major point of anger among Iraqis, especially Sunnis who made up some 80 percent of the inmates.
Quantock acknowledged that in the early days of the war, many innocent people were most likely snapped up in U.S. military round-ups. But he said that had since improved. The remaining detainees were “not an accident,” he said.
One of the detainees still held at Camp Cropper is Reuters freelance cameraman and photographer Ibrahim Jassam. Jassam was arrested just over a year ago.
Neither his family nor Reuters have been told what the precise allegations are against him and the evidence in the case is classified, according to the U.S. military.
Editing by Missy Ryan and Philippa Fletcher