BAGHDAD - The U.S. military Thursday closed down its largest detention center in Iraq 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 prison complex in Iraq's southern desert near Kuwait, was agreed to under the bilateral security pact signed last year obliging U.S. forces to wind down their massive detention program in Iraq.
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 access to a lawyer. 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 security pact, which also calls for all U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by 2012, obliges the United States to release U.S. detainees who do not face Iraqi arrest warrants or detention orders. Since January, 5,703 U.S. inmates have been released and 1,360 were transferred to the Iraqi government.
Following Bucca's closure, around 8,300 detainees remain in U.S. custody in Iraq in two detention centres around Baghdad.
The pact sets no date for the detainee transfer to be concluded, but U.S. commanders have said they expect it to have occurred either in December or January.
"As a result of the great working relationship between the government of Iraq and Task Force 134, I'm pleased to say the Camp Bucca detention facility is now closed," said Brigadier General David Quantock, commander of U.S. detention operations, referring to the U.S. military unit in charge of detainees.
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 an vicious insurgency.
Remaining Bucca detainees were either transferred to the U.S. military's Camp Cropper detention facility near Baghdad airport or to an Iraqi-run center at Camp Taji north of Baghdad.
The U.S. policy of detaining suspects without trial has been a major point of anger among Iraqis, especially Sunni Arabs who made up some 80 percent of the inmates.
(Reporting by Michael Christie; Writing by Michael Christie and Tim Cocks; editing by Missy Ryan and Samia Nakhoul)