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State Department Says Saddam Still in US Hands

U.S. State Department officials say condemned former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remained in the hands of U.S. military forces in Iraq as of late Friday. But they said that did not preclude the possibility of an early handover to Iraqi authorities for his execution. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Though the U.S. forces in Iraq have served as Saddam Hussein's jailers since his capture in December of 2003, he has technically been under Iraqi legal jurisdiction.

Officials in Washington say U.S. authorities in Iraq are still awaiting official notice from the Baghdad government that he is to be handed over to them for execution.

As speculation about the former Iraqi president's status swirled in the Iraqi capital, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey told reporters there had been no change in his status as a prisoner of coalition forces. Casey said the time frame for his execution is a matter for Iraqis to decide.

He said Saddam Hussein had been tried and convicted under Iraqi law and the sentence will be administered under a time-line determined by Iraqis, in a process that had strong U.S. support:

"We think its very important that there be accountability for the crimes that were committed under Saddam's regime," he said. "There's been a trial that's taken place. It's been one that's been conducted under international and Iraqi law."

"A sentence has been handed out and that sentence will be carried out in accordance with Iraqi laws and standards. This is a system that's been set up by Iraqis. It's part of their process and we believe it's something that's part of providing accountability for the crimes of the past regime," he continued.

A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here said U.S. officials expect that little time would elapse between the moment Saddam Hussein is handed over to Iraqi authorities and when the death sentence is carried out.

He said despite reports from Baghdad that the execution was close at hand, U.S. officials in Iraq had been given no timetable but that it seemed likely it would occur within the next few days.

Iraq's highest appeals court Tuesday upheld Saddam Hussein's death sentence, handed down November 5 for the 1982 executions of 148 men in the town of Dujail, scene of an attempt on the life on the then-Iraqi president.

The Bush administration stressed the independence of the Iraqi tribunal that tried Saddam Hussein and key associates, though the work of the war crimes panel was heavily underwritten by the United States, and operated in the U.S. protected Green Zone in Baghdad.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said earlier this week Saddam Hussein's trial for crimes against humanity was deeply flawed and that the death sentence should not be carried out.

The group said imposing a death penalty, indefensible in any case, is especially wrong in light of what it said were unfair proceedings marred by political interference by Iraqi officials.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at the time of the November verdict, commended what she termed the tribunal's professional and impartial deliberations and said the Saddam Hussein verdict was a hopeful reminder that the rule of law can triumph over the rule of fear.