BAGHDAD, Iraq – The United States will hand legal custody of Saddam Hussein (search) and an undetermined number of other former regime figures to the interim Iraqi government as soon as Iraqi courts issue warrants for their arrest and request the transfer, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
However, the United States will retain physical custody of Saddam and the prisoners, while giving Iraqi prosecutors and defense lawyers access to them, the official said on condition of anonymity.
The Americans will continue to keep Saddam and others locked up and under U.S. guard because the Iraqi government does not yet have capacity to hold such prisoners, the official said.
"Before we turn over any of the detainees, we have to make sure there is valid Iraqi court order that authorizes the government to detain those individuals," the official said. "Once the security detainees are turned over to the Iraqi government, they become criminal detainees subject to criminal due process protections."
Saddam will be in the initial group of prisoners turned over, he said.
Last week, Salem Chalabi (search), the official in charge of setting up a war crimes tribunal, said he expected the Iraqis to issue the necessary warrants before the transfer of sovereignty June 30.