U.S. May Cede Legal Custody Of Hussein
Ex-Leader Would Stay In American Hands
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 16, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, June 15 -- The United States intends to transfer legal custody of former president Saddam Hussein to Iraq's interim government if asked by the country's new prime minister, the administrator of the U.S. occupation, L. Paul Bremer, said Tuesday. But Bremer indicated that the U.S. military would continue to retain physical custody of Hussein until the Iraqi government has an appropriate detention facility to hold him.
"If they ask for him, which I have every reason to believe they will . . . we'll turn him over," Bremer said. He added, however, that "legal custody and physical custody can be two separate things."
The interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has been discussing the handover of Hussein with U.S. occupation authorities, although it was not clear whether he was seeking physical as well as legal custody of Hussein and other imprisoned former Iraqi leaders. Allawi said Monday night that Hussein and his lieutenants should be transferred to Iraqi control in two weeks, after the country recovers formal sovereignty on June 30.
"We have specific promises on this from the coalition authority, and the negotiations are under way," Allawi told CNN on Tuesday.
"We've been talking to him about it," Bremer said. "Allawi has been clear that he's going to ask."
U.S. officials said Tuesday that the physical turnover of prisoners is likely to come much later than June 30 because of the shaky security situation caused by a relentless insurgency against the U.S. occupation. Speaking at the White House, President Bush said Hussein and other senior figures of his Baath Party government would be turned over to Iraqi custody only when "appropriate security" is in place.
By giving Iraq legal but not physical custody of Hussein, the U.S. and Iraqi governments could achieve a deal that is in the best interests of both nations, a senior U.S. official involved in the process said. If the United States retained legal custody of Hussein, who has been classified by the U.S. government as a prisoner of war, it could prompt challenges from human rights groups and Hussein's lawyers because under international law, prisoners of war are to be released or charged with a crime when hostilities end.
For the Iraqi government, obtaining legal custody could provide an important symbolic boost to ballast its authority after June 30. But Iraqi leaders have indicated that assuming physical custody of Hussein could pose problems for them.
Hussein, who inspired fear among Iraqis for a quarter of a century and ordered the execution of many, would be a prisoner like no other in Baghdad. He has long been the focus of hatred for millions of Iraqis who suffered under his rule. But his loyal followers, including many of those in the insurgency, also could seek ways to rescue him from captivity.
The United States has held him in a secret location since his capture last December.
"We must first make sure than we can maintain protection for his life until he goes to trial," the country's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, told reporters Tuesday. "We must make sure that the trial goes as a legal process, he has his own fair chance of defense and the government has its own chance of expressing charges on him."
A special tribunal has been created in Baghdad to try Hussein and top officials of his government. The president of the tribunal, Salem Chalabi, has said that prosecutors will seek to charge Hussein and his lieutenants with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in connection with his government's repression of ethnic Kurds and Shiite Muslims. Among the incidents likely to figure prominently in the charges are the use of poison gas against Kurdish villages in 1988 and the bloody suppression of a Shiite insurrection after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Bremer said the tribunal would not be ready to issue an indictment by June 30, but he said an arrest warrant from an Iraqi court could provide sufficient grounds to transfer legal custody.
The Bush administration has classified Hussein as a prisoner of war, but the status of his lieutenants is less clear.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company