WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, pursuing new reports of possible war crimes by Iraqi troops in Kuwait and pressing its study of what to do about them, appears to be leaning toward a postwar court assembled by the wartime allies to try those responsible.
A new tribunal, set up by the allies and dominated by judges from Arab nations, is the preferred approach among three options now under review, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The actual shape of the new court and the scope of the trials, that official said, can only be "sorted out after cessation of the hostilities."
The clearest signal yet that the allies will hold such trials came yesterday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where Lt. Gen. Khalid Bin Sultan, commander of the joint Arab forces fighting in the Persian Gulf war, said flatly:
"We warn all who have taken part in the many crimes against innocent civilians in Kuwait, whether by rape, murder or torture, that they will be held responsible before an international court of justice and will be treated as criminals of war."
He said he was referring specifically to a spate of new reports of atrocities in Kuwait, especially Kuwait City. "I'm talking about the people who are murdering children, and they are doing horrible things right now," he said.
"I hate to say it, but there is killing people by axes. . . . They rape females, cut certain parts of them, and hang them in every street. . . . They even try to force very young soldiers to kill Kuwaiti children. . . . So horrible."
Some refugees from Kuwait crossing into Jordan yesterday denied Iraqi troops were committing atrocities in Kuwait City. "Iraqi troops are treating people well, they are not bothering them," said Ghazi Hijazi, a Jordanian businessman who said he left Kuwait Friday evening. Other refugees interviewed at Ruweished made similar comments.
Although there appears to be much sentiment in Congress to try Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for war crimes, the Saudi general appeared to be discounting the possibility that he would be haled before an allied tribunal after the war.
Asked specifically whether the allies would demand that Mr. Hussein be handed over for trial, the general said: "No, sir. Saddam Hussein, his own people, his own nation can deal with him."
U.S. military spokesmen in Saudi Arabia on Friday began citing reports of Iraqi atrocities, first with a focus on the torching of oil wells in Kuwait and then, Saturday, with descriptions of random attacks against Kuwaiti civilians.
The Pentagon has a team of war crimes investigators, made up about 20 Army reservists called to duty for just that, now gathering evidence for possible use in postwar trials. That team, made up of lawyers and paralegals, is working partly in the Persian Gulf and partly at the Pentagon.
That process, officials here said yesterday, is more difficult than the actual drafting of outlines for a court to try war criminals. "Evidence-gathering is very tough," said one administration aide. "You have to talk to survivors, you have to identify the perpetrators."
The Saudi general's remarks about trials were taken here to be a firm indication that the matter of prosecutions for wartime atrocities is a matter of active and ongoing discussion within the Persian Gulf coalition.
Congressional sources who have been monitoring the administration's study of possible war crimes tribunals said yesterday they assumed that the new reports -- and the possibility of the war's end -- had accelerated the planning process. "Now that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we can expect there to be a redoubling" of the planning, one House aide said.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said she had no word at this point on "which mechanism, what process would be used."
But within the administration, it is known that three options are under study. According to one well-placed official, those are:
* First, said to be "the simplest" approach and the one preferred by high-level officials, would be a "tribunal established by the allies." Officials here want such a war crimes court "to be simple and easy to administer," that official said.
* Second would be a Kuwaiti-only court, trying war criminals under Kuwait's law as well as under international law, which already defines war crimes. "The Kuwaitis have been the victims, in terms of scale," and thus there is some sentiment favoring that kind of tribunal, an official said.
* Third, and clearly the approach least favored here, would be a United Nations-established tribunal. That, the official commented, "would be too cumbersome" to set up and operate.
In any event, another official said, "the Kuwaitis will have a major role" in any war crimes prosecutions.