BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military officially handed over the notorious Abu Ghraib prison to the Iraqi Justice Ministry yesterday, having moved the final 3,000 inmates to detention facilities at Camp Cropper in Baghdad and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq last month.
The handover took place on a day that 45 deaths were reported, including 14 Indian and Pakistani pilgrims on their way to the Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf.
The prison was a symbol of both the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime and, after photographs of prisoner abuse at the hands of U.S. soldiers came to light in April 2004 and February 2006, the ethical perils of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The emergence of the Abu Ghraib photos, showing naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated by smiling soldiers and barking dogs, are widely believed to be one of the most damaging blows to American prestige since the conflict began three years ago.
To date, 11 mostly low-ranking soldiers who worked at the prison have been convicted of crimes, including indecent acts, conspiracy and mistreatment of prisoners.
As a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, who ran the prison at the time, was demoted to colonel, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez was passed over for an appointment to a four-star command.
Abu Ghraib became a lightning rod for critics around the world and a target for the rising insurgency in Iraq. In 2004, insurgents released a video claiming that they had beheaded American contractor Nick Berg in response to mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. And in 2005, insurgents staged an unsuccessful prison break with a 200-man attack on the prison, using a barrage of mortar rockets and three suicide vehicle bombs.
In a brief announcement yesterday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said that the prison is empty of prisoners, most of them freed during recent months by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a gesture of reconciliation to Sunni Arabs.
More than 13,000 prisoners are still in U.S. custody in Iraq, many of whom have waited months, without formal charges being filed or access to Iraqi courts.
The Iraqi government holds at least 15,000 more detainees, often in deplorable conditions. In an article published this year, the Los Angeles Times cited internal investigative documents describing beatings, rapes and killings of detainees by prison guards.
Al-Maliki visited Iraq's most revered and influential religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf yesterday to discuss a Shiite militia uprising last week that left 90 dead.
In the northern Kurdistan area, regional President Massoud Barzani issued an order banning the Iraqi national flag at all regional offices and checkpoints.
"Under this flag thousands of our people were killed, tortured and displaced," said Khalil Ibrahim, a Kurdistan regional parliament member. Iraq's current flag is a slightly modified version of the banner adopted by Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Barzani's move drew a rebuke from the Muslim Scholars Association, a prominent group of Sunni Arab clerics, who called it "an unjustified action."
At least 45 deaths were reported yesterday, including the killings of 14 Indian and Pakistani pilgrims who were on their way to worship at the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Forensic examiner Saad Abdalamir said that the group had attempted to trek from Syria through Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency. "All of them were tortured, killed and mutilated," he said.
Morgue workers at Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad said they received 16 bodies yesterday, including four relatives who were shot in the southwest neighborhood of Jihad and three bodies of people who had been handcuffed and shot in the head.
In south Baghdad, a car bomb exploded between a police station and gas line in the south, killing four people. Gunmen killed two people in the Yarmouk neighborhood in southwest Baghdad, and a mortar rocket killed one person in the southeast area of the capital.
In Baqouba, 25 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen killed six people, including three traffic policemen.
Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.