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Iraq gets custody of foreign militants, plans to broadcast identities

BAGHDAD, Iraq _The U.S. military has agreed to hand legal custody of some suspected foreign fighters to the interim Iraqi government, which has controversial plans to broadcast the men's names and photos on television, American and Iraqi officials said Thursday.

The transfer came after Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government demanded the prisoners so it could prove to the Iraqi public that security forces have captured foreign militants.

Despite claims by the Bush administration and Allawi's government that Arab Islamic extremists are responsible for much of Iraq's mayhem, many Iraqis remain skeptical. Showing Syrian, Sudanese and other Middle Eastern detainees on television would be a public-relations coup for Allawi, whose image as a strongman has suffered amid nonstop car bombings and brazen attacks on his nascent security forces.

International law prohibits the U.S. military, which will retain physical custody of the foreign detainees, from releasing information on inmates. The Iraqi government said public demands to see foreign fighters outweighed human-rights concerns. The government hopes to film the detainees as early as next week.

"We are going to show these Arabs on TV," said Qassim Daoud, the Iraqi minister of state for national security. "We are under a lot of pressure from the public regarding these detainees. They want to see them. We are trying to match human-rights standards, but at the same time we need to show these foreign fighters to the public. They need evidence."

The Iraqi government initially demanded legal custody of all foreign detainees, but the U.S. military has agreed to cede control of only about 20 percent of the 150 or so foreigners in American-run detention centers, said Iraqi politicians and a senior U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The American official said the other foreign suspects were still under interrogation at Abu Ghraib.

The agreement came after several days of intense talks supervised by a team of lawyers, who want to ensure that arrest warrants and other legal formalities are in place before the hand-over. Final negotiations are set for Saturday in Baghdad.

"It means if you're accused of terrorist acts, they can take you to an Iraqi court and try you for Iraqi crimes," the U.S. official said.

Once legal custody is transferred, the detainees will appear before a panel of Iraqi judges to face criminal charges, said Nouri Abdulrahim, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry.

The transfer isn't the first time that humanitarian and legal concerns have been overshadowed by the Iraqi public's demands for proof that security forces are doing their jobs.

The former American-led occupation authority drew criticism for releasing footage of the bloody bodies of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's sons Odai and Qusai, who died in a gun battle with American troops in July 2003.

The same debate surfaced after the U.S. military transferred legal custody of Saddam and 11 members of his former regime to the new Iraqi government in late June. Directors of the Iraqi tribunal that's prosecuting Saddam and his allies allowed courtroom footage of the accused, saying public interest compelled them to show the usually confidential proceedings.

The foreigners to be shown on television are a hodgepodge of Arabs and North Africans accused of planning or carrying out attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Firas Adnan, a human rights lawyer whose caseload includes detainees, said the transfer of legal custody was an opportunity for Allawi's fledgling government to show the world that Iraqis were capable of providing fair, transparent trials to suspected insurgents. However, he added, the plan still smacks of a government trying to soothe the public's concerns by showing a few foreign fighters while large networks of Iraqi insurgents remain at large.

"The government is using the foreign fighter issue as political propaganda to make the Iraqi people feel more safe and secure," Adnan said. "It also frightens and sends a warning to militant groups by showing these suspects on TV."

Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said he raised human-rights concerns during meetings on the prisoner transfer, but added that he was "reasonably satisfied" with the decision to identify the detainees. Otherwise, he said, "the Iraqi people are not going to believe we captured these people."

"Looking at the situation in Iraq, I'd rather help Iraqi people by reassuring them we've caught some of these people, rather than getting hung up on minor—and I do call them minor—human-rights concerns," Kadhim said. "It's a balancing act."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Shatha al Awsy, Omar Jassim and Yasser Salihee contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FOREIGNERS

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