BAGHDAD, Iraq – The new Iraqi government now has legal custody over the dictator who ruled the nation for three decades — Saddam Hussein (search).
Besides Saddam, the United States also turned over custody of 11 of his deputies. On Thursday, Saddam and the others are expected to be formally charged with crimes against Iraq.
In Saddam's case, the charges are expected to include the massacre of Kurds (search) in 1988 and the invasion of Kuwait two years later.
The 12 suspects will appear in a courthouse with a prominent clock tower inside Baghdad's sealed-off Green Zone (search). It will be filmed for public release.
The images will be the first the public will see of Saddam since his Dec. 13 capture by U.S. soldiers, when a clip showed the bushy-bearded leader opening his mouth for a dental examination.
Saddam will remain in an American-controlled jail guarded by Americans until the Iraqis are ready to take physical custody of him. That is expected to take a long time, and a trial isn't likely until 2005.
The defendants were informed individually of their rights, an international official said. An Iraqi judge witnessed the proceedings.
"The first step has happened," Salem Chalabi (search), the director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal (search) that will try Saddam, told The Associated Press. He refused to elaborate. "I met with him [Saddam] earlier today to explain his rights and what will happen," Chalabi said.
The crimes against humanity for which Saddam is expected to be tried include the 1988 chemical weapons massacre of Kurds in Halabja (search), the slaughter of Shiites during a 1991 uprising in southern Iraq, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The legal transfer means that Saddam and the others are no longer prisoners of war — subject to rights under the Geneva Conventions — but criminal defendants whose treatment will be in accordance with Iraqi law.
L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, said it would be months before Saddam and the others would go to trial before an Iraqi tribunal, but he's confident the Iraqis will handle it well.
"He will get the kind of justice he denied his own people," Bremer said in a television interview Wednesday. "It's a wonderful day for the Iraqis to get him under their direct control. It will be a major event."
'The Whole World Will See This'
Pretrial negotiations are already under way over permitting Saddam's foreign legal team to work in Iraq, whether to televise the proceedings and whether to reinstate the death penalty, which was suspended by Bremer.
Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq's new national security adviser, said Wednesday that the Iraqi Special Tribunal will be able to impose the death penalty. He said Saddam will not be allowed to turn the trial into a political game by calling witnesses such as President Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Saddam Hussein will be under the legal control of Iraqi law," he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "He is going to be tried according to the Iraqi criminal code."
Iraqi officials insist Saddam and the others will get fair trials. Hamid al-Bayati, Iraq's new deputy foreign minister and a leader of the main Shiite Muslim party, said there's "no chance at all" that Saddam will walk out a free man, perhaps on a legal technicality.
"The whole world will see this," said al-Bayati, who said he was tortured in Saddam's prisons in the 1970s. "He won't be able to walk free."
But the trial could contribute to the upheaval in Iraq by polarizing Saddam's supporters and detractors, said Walid Mohammed al-Shibibi, a Baghdad attorney and editor of a legal journal.
"This will escalate into terrorist attacks," he said.
Then there's always the chance that if Saddam has a chance to speak, he could use the opportunity to grandstand.
"I think that's always a risk, but that's also part of the process," Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander who testified against accused war criminal and former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosovic, told Fox News.
Rich Galen, former media director for the Coalition Provisional Authority, told Fox News Wednesday that many experts have been working to identify and forensically study mass grave sites to use them as evidence.
"Remember, we're not talking about a few people or few thousands — we're talking about tens of thousands of people," Galen said. "We've had a large group of people, both Arabs and Westerners, going through warehouses of audio, video, still photographs. Saddam and his henchmen were brutally accurate in recording the horrors that they visited upon their people, so we've got a lot of stuff."
Upon their arraignment, the dozen U.S. military detainees will be given the status of Iraqi criminal suspects, which gives them the right to attorneys or appointed counsel, Chalabi said.
The Need for an 'Iron-Clad' Case
The first batch of Saddam's lieutenants to face the tribunal include Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali"; former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan; former deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and two of Saddam's half brothers.
Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University law school, told Fox News that there are a large number of U.S. legal experts working "behind the scenes" and that "there's a couple of questions as to whether he will be tried last or first."
For example, he said, the government may want to try Saddam last in order to get more info from other witnesses "so that you have an iron-clad case against Saddam."
"There can't be an acquittal — it's so important to have the strongest possible case for the prosecution," added international lawyer James Hirsen.
A team of 20 foreign lawyers appointed by Saddam's wife Sajidah might not be permitted to represent him, al-Shibibi said.
The only foreign lawyers permitted to defend Iraqis without special permission are Palestinians and Syrians. Others must seek approval from the Iraqi Bar Association.
Ziad al-Khasawneh, one of Saddam's would-be defense attorneys, said in Amman, Jordan, that the defense team planned to go to Iraq but that Allawi's government had not said whether it would provide security.
"How can the defense team go to a country where it doesn't enjoy any protection? They will kill us there," said an angry al-Khasawneh.
Al-Shibibi said there are Iraqi lawyers who would agree to represent the dictator. Few would consent to release their identities — nor, for that matter, would prosecutors, he said. Lawyers working in Iraq's justice system have already received death threats.
The proceedings will rely on a mix of Iraqi criminal law, international regulations such as the Geneva Conventions and experiences of bodies such as the Rwanda war crimes tribunal.
As much as 30 tons of documents and other evidence must be culled. And then there are the potential witnesses, a body which could be said to include almost every Iraqi.
"If I'm asked to testify I would be willing," al-Bayati said. "But there are so many others who suffered more. There are more serious eyewitnesses."
Fox News' Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.