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US may not 'physically' hand over Saddam

June 16, 2004 10:16 IST

The United States is considering giving "legal custody" of Saddam Hussein to the new Iraqi interim government while retaining "physical custody", according to US administrator L Paul Bremer.

"If they ask for him, which I have every reason to believe they will... we'll turn him over," the Washington Post quoted him as saying on Tuesday.

"Legal custody and physical custody can be two separate things," he added.

The interim Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, is discussing the handover with the US authorities, although it is not clear whether he is seeking physical as well as legal custody of Hussein and other imprisoned Iraqi leaders.

US officials said physical turnover of prisoners is likely to come much later than June 30 because of the shaky security situation caused by a relentless insurgency against the US occupation, the Post reported.

Hussein and other senior figures of his Ba'ath Party government will be turned over to Iraqi custody only when "appropriate security" is in place, President George W Bush said on Tuesday.

By giving Iraq only legal custody of Hussein, the US and Iraqi governments could achieve a deal that is in the best interests of both nations, a senior US official involved in the process said.

If the US retains legal custody of Hussein, who has been classified as a prisoner of war, it could prompt challenges from human rights groups and Hussein's lawyers because POWs are supposed to be released or charged with a crime when hostilities end.

For the Iraqi government, obtaining legal custody could provide an important symbolic boost to ballast its authority after June 30. At the same time, Iraqi leaders have indicated that assuming physical custody of Hussein could pose problems for the new government.

Hussein would be a prisoner like no other in Baghdad.

Partly for those reasons, the US has held him in a secret location since his capture in December 2003.

"We must first make sure than we can maintain protection for his life until he goes to trial," the country's interim President, Ghazi Yawar, said on Tuesday.

"We must make sure than the trial goes as a legal process, that he has his own fair chance of defence and the government has its own chance of expressing charges against him."

A special tribunal has been created in Baghdad to try Hussein and top officials of his government.

The president of the tribunal, Salem Chalabi, has said that prosecutors will seek to charge Hussein and his lieutenants with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in connection with his government's repression of ethnic Kurds and Shiite Muslims.

Bremer said the tribunal will not be ready to issue an indictment by June 30, but he said an arrest warrant from an Iraqi court could provide sufficient grounds to transfer legal custody.

Bremer also maintained that prisoners of war "can be kept until the hostilities are ended, and that isn't going to be by June 30".

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