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.
If Iraqi officials do not ask for custody or if the U.S. government rejects the request, U.S. officials insisted that there was sufficient legal basis to hold Iraqis they classify as security detainees or prisoners of war after June 30. An agreement between the interim Iraqi leadership and U.S. officials, approved by the United Nations, expressly gives U.S.-led forces the right to detain people after June 30, they noted. Bremer also maintained that prisoners of war "can be kept until the hostilities are ended, and that isn't going to be by June 30."
The military plans to hold between 3,500 and 4,500 security detainees after the June 30 turnover, officers said. So far, about 400 cases have been turned over to a special Iraqi court established last summer by the occupation authority to try security detainees, although fewer than 20 cases have gone to trial.
Addressing another touchy issue between the U.S. and interim Iraqi governments, Yawar asserted that the United States would not be allowed to keep Hussein's main palace, now used as the occupation headquarters, as part of the future U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"We have asked that the Republican Palace be vacated at the fastest opportunity for us to use it as Iraqis, as a Republican Palace or a museum. Whatever we do with it is a matter for Iraqi sovereignty. It is a symbol of Iraqi sovereignty," Yawar told reporters.
Meanwhile, insurgents stepped up their campaign against Iraq's infrastructure Tuesday, blasting two oil pipelines and cutting the country's oil exports through the Persian Gulf by half, the Associated Press reported.
Iraqi officials told Dow Jones Newswires they expected to have the damage repaired within a few days. However, petroleum analyst Paul Horsnell, head of energy research at Barclays Capital in London, said that Iraq would probably fail to meet its export target of 2 million barrels a day for June because of the blasts.
[On Wednesday, the al-Jazeera satellite television network reported that the head of security for oil fields in the northern city of Kirkuk had been assassinated, the Reuters news agency reported.]
On Tuesday in Baghdad, a three-vehicle convoy of foreign contract workers employed by the occupation authority was fired as it drove down a street and passed under a bridge, the U.S. military reported. [On Wednesday, the U.S. military announced that two people were killed and three were wounded in the attack, according to the AP.]
Staff writer Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.