Iraq's Governing Council formally established a war crimes tribunal Wednesday to try top members of Saddam Hussein's government, and said the court could try Saddam in absentia.

Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim (search), current president of the interim government, said the tribunal will cover genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed from July 14, 1968 -- when Saddam's Baath Party came to power -- until May 1, 2003 -- when President Bush declared major hostilities over.

"Today is an important historic event in the history of Iraq," al-Hakim said.

Al-Hakim said the council had made no decision on the death penalty, which was suspended by the U.S. occupation authority.

By the time judges and administrators are appointed for the tribunal, a new transitional government, scheduled to assume sovereignty by July 1, will make a decision on capital punishment, he said.

The announcement came in a room refurbished to house the tribunal's cases, with a wooden bench for judges and a wooden cage for suspects. The room was once used by Saddam to display gifts he received from foreign dignitaries.

Another Governing Council member, Younadem Kana, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the court's proceedings would be open to the Iraqi public -- possibly even broadcast on television.

He said the first suspects brought to trial could include top officials of Saddam's government on the "deck of cards" of 55 most-wanted Iraqis.

"The top 55, they are the first priority," Kana said.

Those could include several former top officials in coalition custody, such as former foreign minister Tariq Aziz (search), former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan (searchand Ali Hassan al-Majid (search), known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in chemical attacks on Kurds in the 1980s.

U.S.-led occupation forces have pledged to cooperate with the tribunal and hand over captured Iraqis, some of them in custody since April.

In all, hundreds of Saddam aides could be brought before judges for crimes relating to mass killings of Iraqi Kurds and Shiite Muslims as well as the treatment of political prisoners.

The court's legal framework draws on Iraqi and international law, including that of Rwanda's genocide tribunal and the legal code used to create the U.N.'s International Criminal Court (search-- a body the Bush administration opposes.

Iraqi judges will preside over the tribunal, and Iraqi lawyers will argue the cases. International experts will serve only as advisers, a move many human rights groups have criticized, saying their expertise is needed.

That part of the plan contrasts with U.N.-sponsored tribunals for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, in which international judges and lawyers have argued and decided cases.

It remained unclear when the tribunal would begin trying suspects. The coalition authority now holds at least 5,500 people in prisons, but it is not known how many of those are war crimes suspects.

Prosecutors will use a growing cache of documents seized from the former regime. Evidence also will come from the excavation of some of the 270 mass graves in Iraq that are believed to hold at least 300,000 sets of remains.