Friday, January 9, 2004

From combined dispatches

Pentagon lawyers have determined that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been a prisoner of war since American forces captured him Dec. 13, a Defense Department spokesman said yesterday.

Despite that determination, top press aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were grappling with what to say publicly about the issue. A senior defense official who insisted he not be named said Saddam’s legal status was still under review.

Similarly, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in an interview with CBS News, “I don’t know that he has been formally declared a prisoner of war.”

However, Mr. Powell said, “we are certainly treating everybody in our custody in accordance with basic rights and expectations of international agreements that we have.”

Separately, a British official briefing reporters in London said that Saddam has volunteered little information so far to his CIA interrogators in Baghdad, but that records and documents found with the former dictator have provided solid leads on resistance activities and organizations.

Papers discovered in Saddam’s briefcase have yielded results “greater than we were ever expecting,” said the official, adding that American interrogators were taking a patient approach with the deposed dictator in hopes of gleaning more information.

Saddam “has not talked himself, but what came out of the papers found with him led to further operations, which led to further information, which led to further operations,” said the official.

Whether or not Saddam is a prisoner of war could be key to how he is treated in captivity and eventually put on trial. The Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war forbid any kind of coercion in POW interrogations, for example.

Mr. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that Saddam and all Iraqi captives are being treated in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. He said Saddam’s legal status was being reviewed by several U.S. agencies.

The general counsel’s office in the Pentagon — the Defense Department’s top civilian lawyers — has determined that Saddam is a prisoner of war because of his status as former commander in chief of Iraq’s military, spokesman Maj. Michael Shavers said yesterday. The lawyers determined that no formal declaration of Saddam’s status was needed, he said.

But asked by The Washington Times to confirm his reported remarks later in the day, Maj. Shavers declined to do so, saying, “The issue is being looked into.”

U.S. officials have said they plan to turn Saddam over to an Iraqi court for trial, which could be six months or more away. The United States says Saddam’s government killed at least 300,000 Iraqis, including thousands of Iraqi Kurds in a poison gas attack in 1988.

But the Geneva Conventions say POWs can be tried only for crimes against humanity by an international tribunal or by the occupying power — which in this case is the United States.

POW status also would entitle Saddam to meet with representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross. No such meeting has happened. Some human rights groups have complained that other top former Iraqi officials in U.S. custody have also not been allowed to see to Red Cross representatives.

• Staff writer Guy Taylor contributed to this story.

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