Baghdad — When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, soldiers were handed decks of playing cards depicting the 55 most-wanted citizens of a country they knew little about.
The ace of spades - Saddam Hussein - is dead and gone, executed four years ago. His thuggish sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a gun battle in Mosul. Others were released several years ago at the request of Iraqi authorities.
Five convicted of crimes against humanity are on death row while at least seven of the wanted men are still at large.
But as the U.S. handed over almost all the prisoners it has held in custody for seven years - along with the keys to its last detention facility, Camp Cropper, Thursday - some of the scientists, technocrats, and military leaders who gave themselves up are in limbo.
The former regime officials - still bitterly despised by many Iraqis but considered victims by others - face trial in the same special court that tried Hussein and ordered his execution. But the wheels of justice are turning slowly.
FORMER OIL MINISTER MAY KNOW TOO MUCH
At least 26 former regime officials have been transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody over the past four days, bringing the total number transferred over the years to nearly five dozen. Iraq's Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim singled out former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who became known as the international face of Iraq under Saddam, in announcing the transfers Wednesday.
"As of today, we have received 55 former regime officials, the main one is Tariq Aziz, and the others are the oil and culture ministers," said Mr. Ibrahim.
Hussein's former oil minister, Gen. Amer Mohammad Rasheed, has an unlikely ally in Charles Duelfer, a former U.S. official who spent hundreds of hours debriefing Iraqi officials while leading the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Duelfer headed the 1,400-member Iraq Survey Group, which concluded in a 2004 report that there was no reason for Rasheed and others to be detained any longer.
Despite that, one U.S. file has Rasheed - a former Air Force general - being held because of "involvement in the chemical and biological weapons program." Another said that he is a threat because of his role in the former regime.
"He's never been affiliated with criminal activities or the horrendous things that the regime did. There is no argument that he is a danger because of WMD management experience - his expertise is in managing large engineering projects," said Duelfer, who believes Rasheed's knowledge about who benefited from illegal oil contracts may be behind his continued detention. "Rasheed knew so much about the allocation of oil in the regime to so many characters, including some in the current government. It seemed to me there was a concern that he simply knew too much."
Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, in charge of U.S. detainee operations, including Camp Cropper, said his file on Rasheed doesn't indicate that he's a security threat.
"I haven't read everything there is but ... there's none of that here," said Cannon, looking at profile of each of the prisoners in his custody.
PRECARIOUS JOB OF TRYING SADDAM-ERA OFFICIALS
The former regime officials are being held under a special Iraqi court, known as the High Criminal Court, first established by the U.S. to deal with crimes of the former government. Its judges are appointed by the prime minister but say they have complete independence. It's a precarious job - almost all have received death threats, and one has been assassinated - fueling the argument that the former regime officials should be tried in an international court.
The fate of some of the detainees has become a political football. The most controversial is Saddam Hussein's former defense minister, Hashim Sultan. Persuaded by Gen. David Petraeus to give himself up in 2003, he was sentenced to death four years later - a ruling which threatened already tense Sunni-Shiite relations and which Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he would not sign.
Others, including Abdel Tawab Mullah Huweish, the head of Iraq's Military Industrialization Commission, which oversaw huge weapons projects, were released several years ago at the request of Iraqi authorities.
The formal charges against Rasheed, the Air Force general, issued in 2005 and recently renewed, accuse him of "wasting Iraq's national wealth" - a category based on a 1958 law and later added to the list of crimes prosecuted by the special court.
BALANCING JUSTICE AND SPEED
But after seven years in detention, the court said it is still investigating the charges against Rasheed and can't say when the case might come to trial.
"It's true that our law says there should be a quick and fair trial, but we should ensure that speed and justice are balanced," said Judge Mohammad Abdulsahib Yasseen, the court spokesman. He said there is no time limit for a case to be brought to trial, unlike in Hussein's era.
Mr. Aziz, the former deputy prime minister, was one of the officials convicted by the high court in the 1992 execution of 42 merchants accused of manipulating prices while Iraq was under sanctions. Aziz, who was part of Saddam's Revolutionary Command Council which rubber-stamped the decision, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
"We are terrified of time limits - in the previous regime we had to work according to time limits. In the cases of the merchants, for instance, we had a 36-hours time limit starting from detaining them or arresting them until they were executed," said Yasseen, a lawyer for more than a decade before the war who was not personally involved in the merchants' prosecution.
PRISONERS COULD BE ASSETS IN RECONCILIATION PROCESS
Cannon said he believes that some of the former regime officials' futures will become clearer once Iraq resolves the gridlock that's followed March elections.
"It will be a lot easier to decide what's going to happen with them once a new government is formed," said Cannon, referring to the handful of prisoners - including eight former regime officials - Iraq has asked the U.S. to retain. "We're sort of in this holding pattern right now. I would consider the five death-sentence detainees as ... prisoners who could have a lot of effect on things that are going on out there. I think the concern is we don't want it to become a political issue."
But although the process began with the U.S., deciding what happens to former regime officials will be a uniquely Iraqi process, said former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
"I would hope particularly in the case of Amer Rasheed they would see him as ... someone that could be an asset in the reconciliation process," said Mr. Crocker, contacted in Washington. "We can steer and guide it but this will be a profoundly Iraqi issue against a backdrop of decades of the Saddam era."