WASHINGTON -- Americans, Iraqis and much of the world agree that Saddam Hussein should face a public trial. But when, where, who should preside, what specific crimes he might be charged with and whether to consider the death penalty all remained contentious yesterday.
U.S. officials have said for months that bringing leaders of the deposed Iraqi regime to justice should be an "Iraqi-led process" rather than the kind of international tribunal that is trying former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the perpetrators of Rwanda's genocide.
But as Iraq's infant judicial process suddenly came under intense global scrutiny yesterday, the Bush administration bowed to demands for international participation and dismissed suggestions by an Iraqi official that a trial could be just weeks away.
"We want a solid, public Iraqi process with an international role," a senior State Department official said. He said it would not occur in "days or weeks."
Hussein, who exerted near- total control over Iraq from the late 1970s until his government collapsed April 9, could face charges based on a wide range of alleged atrocities, from the use of poison gas against the Kurds and Iranians to war crimes against Kuwaitis, from the destruction of the habitat of the Shiite "marsh Arabs" in southern Iraq to many thousands of killings and acts of torture.
Two days after Hussein's capture, President Bush spoke cautiously about the degree of control Iraqis would wield in trying the deposed dictator, telling reporters, "We will work with the Iraqis" to develop a trial "that will stand international scrutiny."
"The Iraqis need to be very much involved," Bush said, acknowledging that he had been questioned about trial preparations by Canada's new prime minister, Paul Martin.
Death penalty issue
The possibility of imposing a death penalty pulled the United States and Iraq into a potential rift with Europeans and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, all opposed to capital punishment.
Asked whether he favored the death penalty for Hussein if the former dictator is convicted, Bush said that while he has his own view, "What matters is the views of the Iraqi people."
The issue put the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally, in a tough spot.
"This country remains opposed to the death penalty, but this is going to be something that, in the end, has to be decided by the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people," Blair told members of parliament. But his chief representative in Iraq, Jeremy Greenstock, told the BBC, "We would have no part of a tribunal or a process that has the death penalty."
Bush continued to resist the idea of an international tribunal, saying that Iraqis "were the people that were brutalized by this man. He murdered them, he gassed them, he tortured them, he had rape rooms."
The State Department announced that its special envoy on war crimes issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper, would go to Baghdad in January to work with Iraqis on establishing a court to try Hussein and other key members of his government.
The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council adopted regulations last week creating a five-member court empowered to try Iraqis on charges involving atrocities committed during the 35 years of Baath party rule. Iraqi officials said yesterday that this would be the court that tries Hussein.
Human rights groups have raised doubts about whether Iraqi judges and prosecutors would be able to conduct a fair trial or get caught up in what Human Rights Watch's executive director, Kenneth Roth, called "vengeful justice."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the new rules, developed with U.S. help, allow for broad international involvement, with non-Iraqis being included not only as advisers but as "judges, prosecutors and other members of the court."
He said key decisions about the court haven't been made.
The United States has promised to turn the country over to Iraqi rule by the end of next June.
But until then, legal experts say, it is responsible as the main occupying power for ensuring that any Iraqi trials comply with international humanitarian law.
"Anyone involved in international justice knows that the best kind of justice is one that's domestic," said Nina Bang-Jensen, executive director of the Coalition for International Justice, which has tracked a number of war-crimes prosecutions.
"The question is, are they capable of doing it at this point? They can't do it without help."
Iran, meanwhile, demanded that Hussein be tried before an international court and that he be prosecuted for his alleged crimes against Iranians after he has been tried on Iraqi charges.
An Iranian government spokesman also said a court should expose which nations sold weapons to Hussein.
Russia, European countries and the United States all supported Iraq in its war against Iran from 1980 to 1988.
Members of the Iraqi Governing Council differed among themselves yesterday on how soon Hussein would be brought to trial. One, Mouwafak al Rabii, said a trial would begin "very soon, in the next few weeks," and Hussein could be executed July 1, the day after the United States hands over sovereignty.
But other members, including Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister, said it would start in a matter of months.
U.S. officials said no decision has been made on when or how Hussein would be turned over to Iraqi custody. He is now being held by the U.S. military at a secret location where, officials have said, they want to question him about the continuing insurgency and weapons of mass destruction.
A senior U.S. official said he didn't know whether the effort to glean information from Hussein would, in itself, delay his trial. "There's a lot to be worked out," he said.