BAGHDAD, Iraq – Coalition officials and the Iraqi government have agreed to transfer legal custody of Saddam Hussein (search) in a week, a coalition official said Monday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made the remarks only hours after the U.S.-led coalition handed over power to an Iraqi interim government in a low-key ceremony in Baghdad. No further specifics on the timing were available.
The ousted Iraqi leader, however, will remain in the hands of U.S. troops, because Iraq does not have a prison secure enough to hold him, a U.S. official said last week, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the Jordanian lawyer claiming to represent Saddam said the ousted leader should be released because handing him over to Iraq's new government would violate international law.
Ziad al-Khasawneh, one of 20 Jordanian and foreign lawyers appointed by Saddam's wife, Sajidah, said the United States has no legal basis to keep prisoners, including Saddam, now that it has transferred authority to an interim Iraqi government.
"International law dictates that in such a situation, the occupation authority must release all prisoners of war — including Mr. President Saddam — and let them choose to leave to any country they wish to go to and under the protection of the occupying power and the United Nations," al-Khasawneh told The Associated Press on Monday.
"The United States would violate international law if it handed the president (Saddam) or other prisoners of war over to the interim Iraqi government."
Saddam was granted prisoner of war status after his capture. Although he is alleged to have committed crimes against his own people, he has not been charged with any offense.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal (search), established six months ago, is expected to try Saddam for atrocities committed during his 23 years as president, including the deaths of some 300,000 people.
Al-Khasawneh said the defense team has enlisted another 1,500 lawyers from across the Arab world, Europe and the United States. That team was preparing letters to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations urging them to work toward freeing Saddam.
"We're saying in those letters that since the military operations have ended and with the handover of power, and since the president (Saddam) had not been charged, then he must be released as stipulated in international law," he said.