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Iraqi government demands custody of Saddam

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

BAGHDAD -- New rifts were exposed yesterday between U.S. authorities and the new Iraqi government, which demanded that Saddam Hussein and thousands of lesser detainees be transferred to its custody immediately after the June 30 turnover.

But President Bush refused to commit to a timetable for handing over Saddam.

"He's a killer. He is a thug. He needs to be brought to trial," Mr. Bush said in Washington, adding that he wanted to make sure that "when sovereignty is transferred, Saddam Hussein ... stays in jail."

"When we get the right answer -- which I'm confident we will, we will work with them to do so -- then we'll all be satisfied," Mr. Bush said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said this week that under the Geneva Conventions, Saddam and other prisoners should be charged with crimes or released when the formal occupation ends on June 30.

But a coalition spokesman said in Baghdad that the United States thinks the prisoners can be held legally as long as the armed insurgency continues.

"We ... do not have to hand [Saddam] over until there's a cessation of active hostilities, and the repatriation doesn't begin until after that," coalition spokesman Dan Senor said at an afternoon briefing. "Hostilities, unfortunately, continue."

Anti-U.S. insurgents drove home the point with an attack on a three-vehicle convoy carrying Western contractors outside Baghdad -- the second such attack in as many days. Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said "some" people had been killed but offered no details.

In another sign of potential conflict, the United States and Western authorities flatly rejected overtures by rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to form a political party and participate in the country's nascent electoral process -- a shift that was welcomed by Iraqi government officials.

Under a soon-to-be-announced Iraqi election law, Mr. Senor said, Sheik al-Sadr would not be eligible for political office because of a regulation that "precludes political parties from participating in the process that are associated with illegal militias."

In yet another wrinkle, President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer described Baghdad's Republican Palace as a "symbol of Iraqi sovereignty" and said Iraq would insist on its return as soon as it can be vacated.

U.S. officials had announced plans to use the palace as an adjunct to the U.S. Embassy, which will be the largest in the world when it opens at the end of the month.

Mr. Senor played down the differences, stressing that Saddam and other detainees eventually would be transferred to Iraqi custody and that the timing was subject to "discussions, not negotiations."

He said the detainees legally could be considered prisoners of war, regardless of the date. That appeared to contradict the position taken by the Red Cross, which said this week that prisoner-of-war status will end on June 30.

The new Iraqi leadership also appeared to be out of step with the coalition. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said flatly yesterday that coalition authorities would transfer Saddam to a special Iraqi tribunal immediately after the June 30 turnover.

"The transfer of Saddam Hussein and [other senior regime figures] will take place within two weeks," Mr. Allawi told the Al Jazeera satellite television station in a broadcast yesterday.

"Yes, Saddam and the others will be handed over to the Iraqi government. Their trial will begin as soon as possible, God willing," he added.

Iraqi officials also said they expect the coalition to turn over to the Iraqi government the nearly 5,000 Iraqis detained at Abu Ghraib and other prisons.

Many of the detainees are suspected of simple criminal activities, while others are thought to represent a risk to coalition forces, foreign civilians or Iraqi interests.

Also yesterday, the Associated Press reported complaints that a group of Shi'ite truck drivers, who had sought refuge at a police station in the Sunni city of Fallujah, had been turned over to a mob and killed when they were unable to pay a ransom.

Six of them were found dead Monday in a morgue in Ramadi, the AP said.

A man identified as Alaa Mery was quoted as saying he went to Fallujah to negotiate for the hostages' release on June 8. He said he met with a group of Syrians who identified themselves as members of the extremist Wahhabist sect and said they were holding the drivers because they collaborated with the Americans.

The Syrians demanded the money, which the families could not pay, he said.

"Fallujah clerics and people made a big fuss regarding Abu Ghraib torture, but now they are killing and mutilating Muslims," Mr. Mery said, referring to the American abuse of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. "They are not resistance. They are a copy of Saddam."