Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the Pentagon's decision to formally designate ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a prisoner of war could be changed.
Mr. Rumsfeld says the decision to grant Saddam Hussein enemy prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions involves what he terms "technical, legal issues."
The decision was announced by the Pentagon last Friday. Military officials said it was based on Saddam's role as leader of the ousted Iraqi regime's armed forces, which were defeated by U.S.-led coalition troops in combat that ended last May 1.
But Mr. Rumsfeld says Saddam's status could be reviewed and changed. And he indicates that change could be linked to an eventual U.S. decision on what criminal charges to bring against the former Iraqi leader.
"If you think about Saddam Hussein's circumstance, he had a potential to be prosecuted for activities against the Iraqi people," he said. "He has a potential to be prosecuted for his actions against the Kuwaiti people. He has a potential to be prosecuted for actions against the Iranian people, where he used gas. He is, as a military person, an enemy prisoner of war for the period up to May 1 and he has the potential for being prosecuted for activities after May 1 involving the insurgency and the killing of coalition troops."
That last possible prosecution could see Saddam redesignated as an unlawful combatant, the status assigned by U.S. officials to terrorist suspects held at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Mr. Rumsfeld gives no indication which way the Bush administration may be leaning. But he makes clear the administration remains interested in giving the Iraqi people a role in any eventual legal process against Saddam. "My impression," he said, "is that the president is leaning towards having the Iraqis play a significant role."
He says that doesn't preclude a U.S. military trial but, in his words, that would be in the lower end of the probability range.
Saddam was captured in Iraq last month after months in hiding, eluding coalition troops. Since then, U.S. officials have provided few details about him. Asked whether the ousted Iraqi leader has been cooperating with U.S. interrogators, Mr. Rumsfeld declined to offer any information.