George W. Bush has vowed that Saddam Hussein will receive a fair and public trial, but an international row is brewing over whether the deposed despot should be executed if convicted of crimes against Iraq and other nations.
Some Iraqis are insisting Hussein be tried at home and face death, with one member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council declaring he could be executed on July 1, the day after the US is due to transfer power to an appointed local administration.
Complicating the picture are moves by officials in Iran and Kuwait to seek war crimes charges against Hussein for attacks and plots against their nations. The US President said Washington was working with the Iraqis on developing a trial that would withstand international scrutiny, although he declined to say it would be held by the nation’s recently established war crimes tribunal.
Mr Bush said Iraqis, not the rest of the world, should decide if Hussein should face death because “they were the ones brutalised by this man”.
“The Iraqis need to be very much involved,” Mr Bush said. “He murdered them. He gassed them. He tortured them. He had rape rooms.”
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Although Mr Bush authorised 152 executions in his six years as Texas governor, he declined to reveal his view about whether Hussein – who he said was a liar, torturer, murderer, and deceiver – should die. But he said he would be no loss: “Good riddance, Mr Saddam Hussein, the world is better off without you.”
Key ally Britain, and the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are opposing the use of the death penalty, but the Iraqi Governing Council is insisting execution be an option for its new war crimes tribunal.
Moufawak al-Rabii, a human rights activist and council member, said it would be a matter of a few weeks before a tribunal was ready to try Hussein, although other members insisted it could be several months.
If the US was not ready to hand over Hussein, Iraqis would be able to demand him once they become self-governing, Mr al-Rabii said.
“We will get sovereignty on June 30th,” he said.
“I can tell you, Hussein could be executed on July 1st.
“They were big crimes he did, from mass graves to killing clerics to gassing the Kurds. There are enough crimes to hang him many thousands of times.”
But Mr Annan urged Iraqis to take the execution option off the table. “As you know, the UN does not support the death penalty,” he said in New York. “All the courts we’ve set up have not included the death penalty.”
Britain’s Blair Government also warned that while it would respect the Iraqi people’s decision, it would not participate in any tribunal that allowed for execution. “The UK is against the death penalty, so we would have no part of a tribunal or a process that has the death penalty,” said Britain’s UN ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock.
Despite Iraqi claims that a trial could be held within weeks, senior US officials said “it will take some time – it’s not weeks away”.
But a US State Department official said it was possible a trial could begin before July, when the US is due to hand over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.
Iraq had an ample pool of qualified judges and lawyers, he said. “We have no doubt the trial could occur in Iraq.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said war crimes committed by the former regime against its neighbours would also have to be brought to court.