Many Iraqis are skeptical of Hussein's POW status

Pentagon announcement could complicate his trial

January 11, 2004|By Nicholas Riccardi | Nicholas Riccardi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqis' complex and contradictory relationship with the dictator who dominated them for decades got even more tangled yesterday, as the country digested reports that the Pentagon has determined that Saddam Hussein is a prisoner of war.

Cabdriver Jassam Said expressed hope that the decision by Pentagon attorneys that Hussein is protected under the Geneva Conventions means that he may be tried in the United States rather than Iraq.

"He deserves to be treated in a good way," said the 28-year-old Baghdad resident. "If he were tried in Iraq, it would not be fair."

"Saddam is a criminal," said Nabeel Mehdi, 40, whose uncles were executed by the regime. "One who is entitled to be a war prisoner is one who has participated in a clean war. Someone who kills his people and creates mass graves - this is not a war prisoner but a war criminal."

As a prisoner of war, Hussein may have Red Cross visits, need not answer questions from American interrogators and may wear a military uniform and insignia. Some experts say the designation could complicate the Bush administration's plans for the new Iraqi government to put Hussein on trial.

That had members of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council voicing concern yesterday, with several saying the Iraqi people should be the ones to try their former dictator.

"He is a criminal, and he was accused of serious crimes against the Iraqi people," said Dara Noor Alzin, a judge and member of the 24-person council. "He must be tried in Iraq."

"It would mean a lot for Iraqis to try him," Noor Alzin said. "It would be a psychological relief for the Iraqis."

American officials here argued yesterday that the prisoner-of-war designation would have little effect because Hussein could be reclassified later.

"This designation leaves his final status undetermined," said Dan Senor, a spokesman for the U.S. administration in Iraq. "His ultimate disposition could be determined by new evidence that comes forward."

Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war are entitled to be tried for war crimes by military tribunals established by the occupying power.

For Iraqis, the Friday night announcement was a momentous event.

Some people were so anguished that they could not read or sleep, while others saw it as evidence that Hussein, despite his defeat on the battlefield and his humiliating capture last month, was still the all-powerful leader they grew up knowing. The one common reaction was to suspect that the announcement from Washington was a sign that the Americans were up to no good.

"The Americans want to avoid him being tried openly - he would disclose crimes committed by Americans," said Muheeb Hamid, a 22-year-old law student.

Several of Hamid's classmates pointed out that the United States had supported Hussein in his war against Iran during a time when he was also slaughtering Kurdish and Shiite Iraqis in the 1980s. The relationship soured when Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

So many Iraqis saw the Pentagon's announcement Friday as evidence that Hussein had cut a deal with the Americans that Gen. Mark Kimmitt had to issue a denial at the occupation force's regularly scheduled news conference last night.

Iraqi Governing Council member Noor Alzin said he thinks that Hussein's humiliating capture will destroy his mystique. The dictator, who had urged his troops to fight to death against the invaders, surrendered without resistance last month.

Since Hussein was captured, insurgent attacks on occupation forces and Iraqis who aid them have continued.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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