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US handover of Saddam reported imminent, but Iraqis differ on execution timing

[JURIST] US media quoting unnamed US military and intelligence sources reported [Mediabistro blog post] late Thursday that US authorities in Iraq will physically hand ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein [JURIST news archive] over to Iraqi officials within 36 hours in preparation for an execution [JURIST report] that will take place before the Muslim Eid holiday on Sunday, and possibly as early as Friday. AP reported a "senior administration official" as saying that the Bush White House is preparing for an execution as early as this weekend [AP report] based on information coming from the Iraqi government. The scenario is broadly consistent with a statement [JURIST report] by an unnamed Iraqi official earlier this month, who told AFP "We will not waste time. We will look at the security situation and [Saddam and his convicted co-defendants] will be executed immediately at the very first opportunity we get after the appeals chamber finalizes the verdicts."

Earlier Thursday, however, Iraqi spokesmen appeared to disagree on when Hussein might be executed, with a deputy justice minister telling AP that a hanging might be pushed into February, claiming that "the law [governing the Iraqi High Tribunal] does not say [that a verdict must be carried out] within 30 days [of confirmation], it says after the lapse of 30 days." The appeals chamber of the Iraqi High Tribunal [official website] handed down its rejection of Hussein's appeal [JURIST report] Tuesday. Tribunal spokesman Raed Juhi has nonetheless insisted that the execution can be carried out within 30 days under the tribunal's rules if President Jalal Talabani approves a death warrant, a step which is itself in dispute [JURIST report]. Overall, the conflicting signals suggest a split among Iraqi officials about the timing of the execution, especially in light of its possible impact on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's national reconciliation efforts [JURIST report] with Sunni groups.

Lead Saddam defense lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi made a last-ditch effort Thursday to forestall any US handover, insisting that "According to the international conventions, it is forbidden to hand a prisoner of war to his adversary" and echoing previous defense warnings [JURIST report] on the consequences of putting Hussein to death: "If the American administration insists in handing the president to the Iraqis, it would commit a great strategic mistake which would lead to the escalation of the violence in Iraq and the eruption of a destructive civil war." Several European governments have also reiterated their humanitarian objections [JURIST report] to enforcement of the death penalty for Saddam. A US State Department spokesman nonetheless said Thursday that the US supported the verdict and the sentence, saying the Iraqis "carried out their work in a transparent and open manner and they arrived at a verdict based on the facts in the case."

Iraqi officials have said that whenever the execution by hanging is carried out it will be fully documented and video recorded [AP report], although whether it will be televised is not yet clear. AP has more.

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