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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Saddam Hussein has been a prisoner of war since his capture last month, the Pentagon says, and the designation will not keep the deposed Iraqi president from standing trial before an Iraqi tribunal.
Whether Saddam is a prisoner of war could be key to how he is treated in captivity and eventually put on trial. The Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war forbid any kind of coercion in POW interrogations, for example.
The United States says Saddam's government killed at least 300,000 Iraqis, including an estimated 5,000 members of the Kurdish minority in a poison gas attack in 1988. U.S. officials have said they plan to turn Saddam over to an Iraqi court for trial.
But the Geneva agreements say POWs can be tried for crimes against humanity only by an international tribunal or the occupying power, which in Iraq is the United States.
In Baghdad, Iraq's capital, some members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council expressed dismay and surprise at the POW decision by Pentagon lawyers, announced Friday.
"I am surprised by this decision," said council member Dara Nor al-Din, a former appeals court judge. "We still consider Saddam a criminal, and he will be tried on this basis. This new move will be discussed thoroughly in the Governing Council."
Another council member, Mahmoud Othman, said, "I think it is a bad decision, and the Americans have no right to make such decisions because it is the Iraqi people alone who can decide. The Iraqi people want Saddam to be tried for his crimes in accordance with the Iraqi law."
A spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, Dan Senor, told reporters in Baghdad that despite the Pentagon announcement, Saddam's "ultimate designation will be determined down the road."
"President Bush has said that the pursuit of justice regarding Saddam Hussein should have an Iraqi leadership role, ... a substantial leadership role by the Iraqi people itself."
Ian Piper, a spokesman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, said handing Saddam over to the Iraqis for trial wouldn't necessarily conflict with the 1949 Geneva Conventions, as long as he is granted due process.
As Iraq's occupier, the United States has authority to determine how Saddam is to be tried, Piper told The Associated Press on Saturday.
In addition to the other protections, POW status also would entitle Saddam to meet with representatives from the ICRC, Piper said. He said the Red Cross has requested but not been granted a visit with the former Iraqi leader. Some human rights groups have complained that other top former Iraqi officials in U.S. custody have not been given access to Red Cross representatives.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday: "We are certainly treating everybody in our custody in accordance with basic rights and expectations of international agreements that we have."
About Saddam's trial, he said, "We believe the credibility of the new Iraqi government will be measured by how they handle this horrible dictator." He said the Iraqis will have international observers at the trial.
Saddam is being held at an undisclosed location and interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency. Iraqi officials say he is being held in the Baghdad area.
In London, a senior British official said Saddam has given no useful information to his interrogators. The official, who briefed journalists on condition of anonymity, said U.S. authorities were taking their time questioning Saddam in the hope that he might eventually open up.
The general counsel office in the Pentagon, the Defense Department's top civilian lawyers, has determined that Saddam is a prisoner of war because of his status as former commander in chief of Iraq's military, spokesman Maj. Michael Shavers said Friday. The lawyers determined that no formal declaration of Saddam's status was needed, he said.
Some Iraqis in Baghdad were disappointed by the decision to grant Saddam prisoner of war status, fearing it was a move to deny Iraqi courts the chance to try him for crimes against the Iraqi people.
Many suspect that the United States secretly used Saddam to promote U.S. interests in the Middle East, especially during the 1980s when the West armed Iraq to help fight Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.
"Saddam has special importance for the Americans as he gave them the master key of the Middle East," Jamal al-Bayati, a house painter, said. "He should be a war criminal rather than a prisoner of war."
Ibrahim al-Basri, a physician, said he believed POW status was part of "a bargain between Saddam and the United States."
"He handed them Iraq," al-Basri said. "If the Americans wanted to clone an agent to serve them, they wouldn't find a better one than Saddam."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)