The United States will turn over detainees to Iraqi authorities as soon after June 30 as U.S. officials determine that they can be held safely and in compliance with international human rights norms, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Wednesday.
The U.S. position was delivered during the opening round of high-level security consultations between Iraq's new interim leadership and a delegation led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and his British counterpart, Kevin Tebbit. The talks are intended to help pave the way for the scheduled transfer of limited sovereignty to Iraq at the end of the month and the arrival in the next few weeks of a new set of top U.S. diplomatic and military authorities, who U.S. officials said plan to pursue more detailed discussions on managing the next phase of U.S.-Iraqi relations.
A senior U.S. defense official who participated in the talks said the status of former president Saddam Hussein was not raised. Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has said he expects to take custody of Hussein with the transfer of power. The discussions Wednesday dealt more broadly with the fate of about 40 detainees from Hussein's ousted government that the United States has classified as "high value."
Georges Sada, a spokesman for Allawi, said after the talks that Iraqi officials agreed to the U.S. position on detainees. He said that a timetable for the turnover was not set but that they would remain in U.S. hands. "We are trying to do our best to fulfill our requirements for the Americans," Sada said.
U.S. officials in Wolfowitz's delegation cited concerns about the ability of Iraq's fledgling security forces to guard the prisoners and were also skeptical about the slowness with which a special Iraqi tribunal has taken shape. The officials left open the possibility that legal custody of Hussein and other detainees could be technically transferred to Iraqi authorities if an existing criminal court issued the appropriate warrants. They said that physical custody of Hussein would remain with U.S. forces but that provisions would be made to give Iraqi investigators access to him.
With members of the U.S. military under investigation for the mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and at other detention facilities in Iraq, U.S. officials also proposed setting up a joint consultative commission that would give Iraqis some say in detention operations.
"Both sides agreed it was a sound idea," said the senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This could allow Iraqi sunshine into the system so that they could take part."
A joint statement issued after the meeting referred to the talks as "just the beginning of a new relationship between the government of Iraq and the members of the coalition" and described the atmosphere as "constructive and positive." But the senior U.S. defense official reported that differences arose over how to deal with persistent insurgencies in the cities of Fallujah and Najaf. Strong resistance from Iraqi political and religious leaders to the use of force against anti-occupation fighters has prompted U.S. military commanders to accede to compromise arrangements in both cities.
U.S. officials also expressed misgivings about a proposal by Allawi to revive several divisions of the old Iraqi army, disbanded after the invasion last year, as a way to quickly expand the Iraqi security services. Pentagon officials have said they are concerned that the cost of such a the plan would divert funds from other security projects that they consider more important.
Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, the top tactical commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, confirmed that he had issued orders in the past week for U.S. troops to put greater emphasis on protecting the new Iraqi leaders and building up the country's security forces. As a result, Metz said, fewer troops might be available for combat operations.
Correspondent Edward Cody contributed to this report.