BAGHDAD – Iraqi officials expressed fears Saturday that a Pentagon decision to confer prisoner of war status on Saddam Hussein (search) will prevent them from putting the ousted leader on trial. However, the international Red Cross said POW status does not preclude prosecution.
U.S. officials in Baghdad sought to assure Iraqis that no deal was made to keep them from trying the ousted dictator and that Iraq will have a "substantial leadership role" when the former Iraqi president finally faces justice.
"There is no need for concern by anybody because the ultimate designation (of Saddam's status) will be determined down the road," Dan Senor, a spokesman for the U.S.-led occupation authority, told a news conference.
On Friday, a Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Michael Shavers, said the Defense Department's top civilian lawyers have determined that Saddam is a prisoner of war because of his status as former commander in chief of Iraq's military.
POW status under the Geneva Conventions (search) grants Saddam certain rights, including access to visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (search) and freedom from coercion of any kind during interrogations.
The Geneva agreements say POWs can be tried for crimes against humanity only by an international tribunal or the occupying power, which in Iraq is the United States.
"I am surprised by this decision," said Dara Nor al-Din, a former appeals court judge and member of Iraq's U.S.-backed Governing Council. "We still consider Saddam a criminal and he will be tried on this basis. This new move will be discussed thoroughly in the Governing Council."
Another council member, Mahmoud Othman, said the United States had no right to make such a decision. "The Iraqi people want Saddam to be tried for his crimes in accordance with the Iraqi law. Iraqis want to know the parties which helped Saddam to commit those crimes and to possess weapons of mass destruction," he said.
Iraq's justice minister, Hashim Abdul-Rahman, called the Pentagon comments "mere views" and insisted that Iraqis themselves would determine Saddam's fate.
"It is a political decision, not a legal one," Abdul-Rahman said. "I do not know why it was taken. But the only thing I do know is that Iraqi bodies will decide Saddam's status. We will determine his legal statues when the Iraqi authorities take over this issue."
Senor, however, sought to play down the significance of the Pentagon comments.
"It is a confirmation of what the United States government has said all along and that Saddam Hussein will be treated under the Geneva Conventions until determined otherwise," he said.
In Geneva, Ian Piper, a spokesman for the international Red Cross, said handing Saddam over to the Iraqis for trial would not necessarily conflict with the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare, as long as he is granted due process.
It is up to the United States, as Iraq's occupier, to determine how Saddam is to be tried, Piper told The Associated Press.
"The status means that he's recognized as a formal combatant and therefore cannot be accused for having waged war," Piper said. But Piper he added that Saddam's prisoner of war status "does not give him immunity from accusations of crimes against humanity."
Piper said that national courts have the power to try people who break international war crimes conventions. "It's supposed to be part of national law, and one would expect the national law to apply at the end of the conflict."
The United States has said it wants an Iraqi court to try Saddam, who has been in U.S. custody under CIA interrogation since his capture Dec. 13. But Washington has yet to set the details for a tribunal.
The United States says Saddam's government killed at least 300,000 Iraqis, including thousands of Iraqi Kurds in a poison gas attack in 1988.
Saddam's capture brought a sense of relief to many Iraqis who suffered under his 23 years of iron-fisted rule. No Red Cross representatives have yet seen Saddam, whom the United Stats says is held in a safe location. Iraqi officials say he is being held in the Baghdad area.
The United States has said that it planned to hand Saddam over to the Iraqis to put him on trial, which was not expected to start before sovereignty was handed back to an Iraqi government by July 1, the date designated for the formal end of the U.S.-led occupation.
On the streets of the Iraqi capital Saturday, some Iraqis speculated that the Americans were trying to deny Iraq the chance to try Saddam for fear he would expose secret contacts between Washington and Baghdad, especially during Iraq's 1980-88 war against Iran. The West provided Baghdad with arms to prevent an Iranian victory that would threaten Middle East interests.
Ibrahim al-Basri, a physician, said he believed POW status was part of "a bargain between Saddam and the United States."
"He handed them Iraq," al-Basri said. "If the Americans wanted to clone an agent to serve them, they wouldn't find a better one than Saddam. He brought the Americans to the Gulf, divided the Arabs, destroyed Iraq and its weapons, threatened Syria and Iran."