BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq will maintain custody of former dictator Saddam Hussein until after June 30, the date marking sovereignty for the new Iraqi government, a spokesman said, despite demands by Iraq's prime minister that American forces turn over Saddam and other detainees in the next two weeks.
President Bush, speaking in Washington, said the United States was preparing to turn Saddam over to the new government but wanted to ensure that adequate security could be maintained and that the timing was under discussion.
"He's a killer. He is a thug," Bush said. "He needs to be brought to trial. We want to make sure that the transfer (of Saddam) to a sovereign government is done in a timely way and in a secure way. That's what we're discussing with the government."
The apparent rift with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi brought up a host of issues, chief among them whether the United States can continue to hold Saddam as a prisoner of war. A spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Baghdad has said Saddam should be freed if he isn't formally charged with a crime by June 30.
Dan Senor, the top U.S. spokesman in Baghdad, said Tuesday that American officials "do not have to hand him over until there is a cessation of active hostilities," noting that Iraq is still very much a hostile environment.
Wa'il Adbul Latif, a minister in the new government and the chief administrative judge for the war crimes tribunal against Saddam, wouldn't confirm that an arrest warrant would be coming this month. He did say, however, that once charged with a crime, Saddam could be held indefinitely.
"Saddam Hussein will be designated as an ordinary criminal," he said.
Asked what would happen to other detainees in American custody, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said it was his understanding that the United Nations Security Council resolution that passed last week gave the United States the authority to continue detaining people currently in custody and those picked up in future operations.
"We certainly are in discussions between the coalition and Iraqi government officials in regards to how those detention operations will be conducted post-June," he said. "It is important to understand that we certainly have the authority to detain, and a responsibility to detain."
Saddam, who ruled with tyrannical force, has been held by Americans in an undisclosed location since he was captured in December. During his time as leader of Iraq, he oversaw a chemical attack that killed thousands of Kurds, and an ongoing repression of Shiite Muslims that included torture, rape and murder.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the subject of his transfer to the Iraqis represented a conflict between the new Iraqi government and the U.S. administration, or whether Allawi was merely grandstanding.
Both sides agree that Saddam will be tried by an Iraqi court, but the timing could have symbolic and practical implications.
A quick hand-over of the despot could be a boon to Allawi, a freshly minted prime minister without wide name recognition.
There are questions, though, about where the Iraqis would hold Saddam, and how well they could provide security for him in confinement and at trial.
The Kurds in northern Iraq are particularly concerned over the issues because of the chemical weapons attacks against them.
"As long as Saddam is in American hands, he's OK. Nobody could bribe an American guard enough to let him escape," said Mohammed Ihsan, the minister of human rights in the Kurdish regional government. "That wouldn't be true if he's in Iraqi hands."
Iraqi security forces frequently have been unable to defend themselves in postwar Iraq, and a recent spate of bombings has left many on the street feeling insecure.
Iraqi President Ghazi al Yawer acknowledged those concerns Tuesday.
"The United States is very keen to hand over the ex-president to the Iraqi authorities. We must first make sure that we can maintain protection for his life until he goes to trial," he said. "We must make sure that the trial goes as a legal process, he has his own fair chance of defense and the government has its own chance of expressing charges on him."
President Bush, al Yawer said, spoke with him about the matter at the G-8 summit last week.
In Baghdad, Senor said the Americans would decide when to hand over Saddam, and downplayed reports of conflict between Allawi and coalition officials.
"Both sides have an interest in handing Saddam Hussein over to the Iraqis, and the only matter is when is the appropriate time. And that is something we are discussing with the prime minister right now," he said. "It is not a negotiation. It is a discussion. We both have the same goal."
Ordinary Iraqis are of mixed minds about a trial for Saddam, wanting to see justice done but more concerned with the lack of security.
"Saddam Hussein ruined my life when he sent me to the Army. My wife died because of him—there was no medicine," said Jinan Mehti, a 40-year-old Christian. "Whether or not they're going to put him on trial, that's their problem. For me it's an old issue."
Feelings against the deposed dictator are stronger in the northern town of Halabja, which Saddam gassed.
"I'd rather have him kept alive," Fateh Abdullah Ahmed, a 42-year-old carpenter, said Sunday. "They should make him watch a video of his sons being killed, 24 hours a day, for the rest of his life. That kind of torture would be a fitting punishment."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Mark McDonald in Halabja and William Douglas in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-ABDULLAH