Custody of Hussein given to Iraq

Former leader, 11 others to be arraigned today

Marine's fate unknown

July 01, 2004|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's new government took legal custody of Saddam Hussein yesterday and moved to reinstate the death penalty in preparation for today's arraignment of the jailed former president and 11 members of his regime on charges that include genocide and war crimes.

"Today at 10:15 a.m. the Republic of Iraq assumed legal custody of Saddam Hussein," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office announced in a one-line statement.

The transfer of Hussein and his top lieutenants from U.S. to Iraqi custody was a legal move that had no effect on their physical incarceration. Because the Iraqi government lacks a suitable detention facility for such high-profile prisoners, they will remain at a U.S.-run compound near Baghdad.

Near Baghdad, rebels ambushed a tank on the road to the international airport after nightfall yesterday, setting fire to the armored checkpoint presumed to be manned by U.S. forces patrolling the area. There was no immediate word of casualties.

The U.S. military launched another airstrike early today against a suspected hideout of militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Fallujah. Witnesses said U.S. jets fired missiles at a house on the eastern side of the city, killing four people and injuring 10. It was the fourth attack this month against targets in the city.

Earlier, at a nearby military base, insurgents lobbed at least 10 mortar rounds into the compound, wounding 11 soldiers.

But yesterday - which was originally scheduled to be the day for the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis before U.S. officials pushed the ceremony to Monday - was remarkably devoid of the heavy casualties threatened by insurgents. For the first time in recent memory, it was a day with neither military nor Iraqi combat fatalities.

"Perhaps the early announcement of the transfer of sovereignty disrupted some operational plans on the part of the high-profile" insurgents, said a senior official of U.S.-led multinational forces. "It may be that the attack plans were not for today, they were not for yesterday, they weren't for the day before, but they are still coming."

Meanwhile, there was no word on the fate of an American Marine being held hostage by insurgents.

The U.S. military has reclassified the status of Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun from "missing" to "captured." A native of Lebanon last seen with his unit June 19, Hassoun appeared blindfolded with a sword at the back of his head in a videotape shown on Al-Jazeera television late Sunday. His captors threatened to behead him if the occupation force failed to release all Iraqi prisoners within 72 hours.

Yesterday, a Marine officer in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hassoun had been emotionally traumatized and might have been abducted while trying to make his way to his native Lebanon.

The officer said he believed that Hassoun was betrayed by Iraqis he befriended on his base and ended up in the hands of Islamic extremists.

During the brief custody transfer of the 12 top regime figures yesterday, 67-year-old Hussein looked "shrunken" and disoriented, according to Iraqi Special Tribunal executive director Salem Chalabi, who witnessed the jailhouse appearance.

In the Jordanian capital, Amman, one of the lawyers hired by Hussein's wife to defend him denounced the proceedings as illegal.

"This is a mockery of justice. We are facing clear legal violations. ... The allegation that this is going to be a fair trial is baseless," Mohammad Rashdan told journalists.

The defendants will likely be called to answer to charges of having killed thousands of their countrymen and abusing millions, for which they are expected to face the death penalty if convicted.

L. Paul Bremer III, the civilian administrator who left Iraq less than two hours after ceding governing authority to Allawi's leadership Monday, had suspended capital punishment shortly after his arrival in May last year.

Allawi's Cabinet approved a revocation of that suspension late Tuesday, according to several senior officials in the prime minister's office and the Justice Ministry.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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