Lawyers at the Department of Defense have determined that Saddam Hussein (search) is an "enemy prisoner of war," senior Pentagon officials told Fox News Friday.
The lawyers apparently made the decision late last month, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) and reporters were only informed of their decision on Friday.
Senior officials and Rumsfeld have been saying since the days following Saddam's capture that he was being treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention (search), which governs treatment of captured military personnel by enemy powers.
Under the convention, prisoners of war are to be treated humanely — torture and coercion are strictly prohibited. They are also to be granted visits by members of the International Red Cross (search).
A spokesman for the ICRC in Geneva, Ian Piper, said Saturday a visit with the former Iraqi leader had been requested but has yet to occur. Some human rights groups have complained that other top former Iraqi officials in U.S. custody have not been given access to Red Cross representatives.
Powell said, "We are certainly treating everybody in our custody in accordance with basic rights and expectations of international agreements that we have."
Some human rights groups have complained that other top former Iraqi officials in U.S. custody haven't been given access to Red Cross representatives.
Senior Pentagon officials were quick to point out that, "should new information" come to light, Hussein's status could be reviewed and possibly changed.
A senior British official said Friday Saddam had not given useful information to his interrogators. The senior official, who briefed journalists on condition of anonymity, said U.S. authorities were taking their time questioning Saddam in the hope that he might eventually open up.
The general counsel office in the Pentagon — the Defense Department's top civilian lawyers — arrived at their decision that Saddam is a prisoner of war because of his status as former commander in chief of Iraq's military, spokesman Maj. Michael Shavers said Friday.
Some Iraqis in Baghdad were disappointed by the decision to grant Saddam prisoner of war status, fearing it was a move to deny Iraqi courts the chance to try him for crimes against the Iraqi people.
"The are considering him a POW in order to have a legal excuse to keep him with them away from the hands of Iraqis," taxi driver Imad Abbas said. "I don't think they will hand him for Iraqis for investigation lest he should reveal previous contacts with them."
Many Iraqis suspect that the United States secretly used Saddam to promote U.S. interests in the Middle East, especially during the 1980s when the West armed Iraq to help defend against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.
"Saddam has special importance for the Americans as he gave them the master key of the Middle East," Jamal al-Bayati, a house painter, said. "He should be a war criminal rather than a prisoner of war."
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."
U.S. officials have said they plan to turn Saddam over to an Iraqi court for trial. 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.
But the Geneva Conventions say POWs can be tried only for crimes against humanity by an international tribunal or the occupying power — which for the time being is the United States.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration had to decide when to hand Saddam over to Iraqi authorities. "We believe the credibility of the new Iraqi government will be measured by how they handle this horrible dictator," Powell said.
Saddam is being held and interrogated by the CIA. Iraqi officials say he is being held in the Baghdad area.
Fox News' Bret Baier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.