BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States has handed over to Iraq dozens of detained former officials of Saddam Hussein's government, including one of its most public faces, ex-Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz, an official said on Wednesday.
The handover was part of a security pact signed in 2008 under which the U.S. military agreed to stop making arrests, hand over its remaining detention centres and withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011.
The formal transfer of the last U.S. detention centre in Iraq -- Camp Cropper near Baghdad airport -- takes place on Thursday.
Aziz, 74, also served as deputy prime minister under Saddam. He gave himself up to U.S. troops in April 2003, two weeks after the former Iraqi leader's rule was ended by the U.S.-led invasion.
He featured prominently in Iraq's conflict with Iran from 1980 to 1988, helping to win U.S. support and to forge strong economic ties with the Soviet Union. He was also a high-profile spokesman for Saddam in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.
"Aziz was among 26 members of the past regime we received (from the United States) the day before yesterday," said Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim, the senior deputy minister in charge of Iraq's prisons.
Ibrahim said other officials from Saddam's government had been handed over previously, bringing the total to 55, but one had since been released.
About 1,600 people detained by U.S. forces and accused of fighting for Sunni Islamist insurgent groups or Shi'ite militia would be transferred to Iraqi control on Thursday when Camp Cropper was handed over, he said.
The closure of Camp Cropper will end a controversial chapter in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Thousands of Iraqis have been held by U.S. forces, most of them without charge, for months and even years.
Disclosures in 2004 that U.S. jailers had abused and sexually humiliated detainees at Abu Ghraib prison on Baghdad's outskirts outraged many Iraqis and may have contributed to the growing insurgency at the time.
Aziz was convicted in March 2009 for his role in the killing of dozens of traders for breaking state price controls in 1992.
His Amman-based lawyer, Badie Arif, said he feared for his client's life at the hands of the Iraqi government and he planned to appeal to the Vatican to intercede. Aziz is a Chaldean Christian and has been suffering from a heart condition.
"Aziz told me he was sure they would kill him because he had so much information," Arif said by telephone. "He said 'They will kill me directly or indirectly, either by preventing me from getting medication or by putting poison in my food'."
The U.S. military said it would retain custody of eight former Saddam associates at the request of the Iraqi government.
Arif said these included former Defence Minister Sultan Hashim, Saddam's half brothers Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan and Watban Ibrahim al-Hasan, former Army Chief of Staff Hussein Rashid and a former top Baath party official, Abdul Ghani Abdul Ghafour. All have been sentenced to death.
Saddam was executed in December 2006 after being convicted of crimes against humanity for the killing of 148 Shi'ite men and boys after an attempt on his life in 1982.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Michael Christie and Andrew Dobbie