(Edited from AP, Baghdad) The U.S. this week handed over nearly 30 former members of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, including the longtime international face of the regime, Tariq Aziz, officials said Wednesday.

The announcement comes a day before U.S. authorities are to transfer authority of Camp Cropper, the last American-run detention facility to the Iraqi government.

(Edited from AP, Baghdad) The U.S. this week handed over nearly 30 former members of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, including the longtime international face of the regime, Tariq Aziz, officials said Wednesday.

The announcement comes a day before U.S. authorities are to transfer authority of Camp Cropper, the last American-run detention facility to the Iraqi government.

The transfer marks a major step toward restoring full sovereignty to Iraq as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw its forces from the country by the end of next year. But it also raised concerns about the fate of Aziz and the other detainees at the hands of a government whose venom for the previous regime has not lessened in the seven years since Saddam was overthrown.

Underscoring the challenges, the military said around 200 will remain in American custody, including eight former regime members, at the request of the Iraqi government.

Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said 26 people were handed over on Monday; he said another 29 were handed over to the Iraqi government 10 months ago.

“As of today, we have received 55 former regime officials, the main one is Tariq Aziz, and the others are the oil and culture ministers,” he said Wednesday, adding that they have also received Saddam’s former secretary, as well as former education and trade ministers.

Aziz, 74, is the most high-profile of the remaining former regime members who were rounded up by U.S. forces in the weeks and months after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam. He was acquitted in one trial but was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for his role in the 1992 execution of 42 merchants found guilty of profiteering.

The only Christian in Saddam’s mainly Sunni regime, Aziz became internationally known as the dictator’s defender and a fierce American critic as foreign minister after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War, and later as a deputy prime minister who frequently traveled abroad on diplomatic missions.

His meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker in Geneva in January 1991 failed to prevent the 1991 Gulf War. Years later, Aziz met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican just weeks before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion in a bid to head off that conflict.

Defense attorney Badee Izzat Aref, who is based in neighboring Jordan, said Aziz feared the transfer was a death sentence.

“Mr. Aziz told me the following: ‘The Iraqi government will certainly kill me. I fear for my life. I expect I won’t live except for days. I’m afraid they’ll poison my food or won’t give me my medicine to silence me. President Obama is no different from Bush, who has Iraqi blood on his hands’,” Aref said.

The lawyer said he planned to appeal to Pope Benedict XVI to intercede on Aziz’s behalf.

He said Aziz’s health condition “seriously deteriorated in the last few days.” In January, Aziz suffered a stroke and was rushed to a hospital in Balad, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

The deputy justice minister said only one of the men transferred to Iraqi custody faced the death penalty – Abdul-Ghani Abdul-Ghafour, a senior Baath Party official who was convicted of his role in crushing the Shiite uprising in 1991.

Iraq has executed a number of ex-regime members, including “Chemical Ali” al-Majid, Saddam’s cousin who earned his nickname for atrocities such as the deaths of an estimated 5,000 Kurds in a poison gas attack in 1988.

But the execution of Saddam himself in December 2006 at the height of the sectarian violence shocked many observers both inside and outside the country. Images and sound of the execution captured on a cell phone showed a pitiless scene in which some people could be heard chanting “Muqtada, Muqtada,” the name of an anti-American Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia is believed responsible for the deaths of thousands of Sunnis.

Saddam’s hanging highlighted the deep hatred that many members of Iraq’s Shiite majority still feel about the man who led the repressive government where the Sunni minority held the strings to power.

As the American military pulls out of Iraq and hands over responsibility of prisoners to the Iraqi government, there have been persistent concerns of mistreatment of prisoners at the hands of Iraqi officials.

The U.S. military confirmed that some detainees had been handed over in preparation for Iraqi authorities to take control Thursday of Camp Cropper, which holds about 1,800 Iraqi prisoners.

Ibrahim said the Iraqis asked for the Americans to maintain custody of the 200 inmates because of unspecified security reasons. He said former defense minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie was among those remaining in American custody.

Al-Taie, a Sunni who signed the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War, surrendered to U.S. forces in September 2003, and his defense has claimed the Americans had promised him “protection and good treatment.”

He was sentenced to death for his role in a 1980s crackdown against Kurds, but Sunni leaders have advocated for him to be released because of his reputation as a respected career soldier who was forced to follow Saddam’s orders in the purges.

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