One day after assuming political authority, the new Iraqi government announced Tuesday that it will take "legal custody" of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on Wednesday and bring formal charges against him on Thursday.
As expected, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Hussein and as many as 11 of his former lieutenants will remain in the physical custody of U.S. and multinational forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
The accused will be given legal protections that are traditional in the United States but new to Iraq, including the right to counsel and the right to remain silent. That means Hussein no longer needs to submit to interrogation by U.S. officials.
Among the officials of Hussein's government scheduled for trial are former deputy prime minister and foreign minister Tariq Aziz, a familiar face on U.S. television since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and Ali Hassan Majeed, also known as "chemical Ali," who reportedly gave the orders to use chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds.
"We will show that justice will prevail," Allawi said, "regardless of how long it will take to be implemented. . . . We want to put this bad history behind us and to move with the spirit and national unity and reconciliation," Allawi said.
Allawi said the trial of Hussein would be public and the arraignments on Thursday could produce the first public glimpse of the ex-dictator since he was captured by U.S. troops on Dec. 13, 2003.
An actual trial of Hussein or anyone else may be months away and could last for months or longer.
A vast accumulation of evidence -- including documents, forensic materials from mass graves and interviews with survivors and witnesses -- remains to be examined by Iraqi investigators and prosecutors and then assembled into a coherent form for admission at a trial.
Allawi said Hussein will be entitled to a lawyer. If he cannot afford a lawyer, Allawi said, smiling, the government will pay the fees.
U.S. legal specialists advising the Iraqis said the defendants will also have a right to remain silent, though the concern today was not silence but the possibility of defendants, including Hussein, using trials as forums to incite supporters.
A senior U.S. government lawyer in Baghdad who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified said it was likely that lesser figures than Hussein would be tried first as part of the process of accumulating evidence and building cases against those in the top positions.
The eventual charges against Hussein would likely focus on command decisions involving mass crimes against Kurds, Shiites and other ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, the specialist said.
Allawi's news conference, broadcast internationally, was his first since his government assumed political authority Monday, two days in advance of the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty.
"This government has formally requested the transfer of the most notorious and high profile detainees," Allawi said. "Saddam Hussein along with up to 11 other high value detainees will be transferred into the legal custody of Iraq tomorrow" under a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and the Iraqi government, he said.
For the Iraqi government, obtaining legal custody provides an important symbolic boost to its authority. Iraqi leaders had indicated that assuming physical custody of Hussein could pose problems for them, however.
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.
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 Gulf War.
Barbash reported from Washington.