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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Legal custody of Saddam Hussein and 11 others was transferred Wednesday to the Iraqis, a first step toward the ousted dictator's expected trial for crimes against humanity.
In a one-line announcement, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office said that the Iraqis had assumed legal -- but not physical -- control, "today, 30th June, at 10:15 in the morning."
They are to appear in court Thursday for a reading of the charges.
"The first step has happened," Salem Chalabi, the director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal that will try Saddam, told The Associated Press. He refused to elaborate.
"I met with him (Saddam) earlier today to explain his rights and what will happen," Chalabi said.
The defendants were informed individually of their rights, said an international official who spoke on condition of anonymity. An Iraqi judge witnessed the proceedings.
Saddam will remain in a U.S.-controlled jail guarded by Americans until the Iraqis are ready to take physical custody of him. That is expected to take a long time.
However, the legal transfer means that Saddam and the others are no longer prisoners of war -- subject to rights under the Geneva Conventions -- but criminal defendants whose treatment will be in accordance with Iraqi law.
L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator, said it would be months before Saddam and others would come to trial before an Iraqi tribunal, but he said he was confident that the Iraqis would handle it well.
"He will get the kind of justice he denied his own people," Bremer told ABC's "Good Morning America." "It's a wonderful day for the Iraqis to get him under their direct control. It will be a major event."
The crimes against humanity for which Saddam is expected to be tried include the 1988 chemical weapons massacre of Kurds in Halabja, the slaughter of Shiites during a 1991 uprising in southern Iraq, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Already there are pretrial negotiations over permitting Saddam's foreign legal team to work in Iraq, whether to televise the proceedings, and whether to reinstate the death penalty, which was suspended by Bremer.
Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq's new national security adviser, said the tribunal would be able to impose the death penalty. He said Saddam would not be allowed to turn the trial into a political game, by calling witnesses such as President Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Saddam Hussein will be under the legal control of Iraqi law," he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "He is going to be tried according to the Iraqi criminal code."
The process of preparing for Saddam's trial come at an extremely difficult time. U.S. administrators turned over power to a sovereign Iraqi government only Monday. Allawi's government faces a relentless insurgency, and 160,000 U.S.-led foreign troops will remain.
Iraqi officials insist Saddam and the others will get fair trials. Hamid al-Bayati, Iraq's new deputy foreign minister and a leader of the main Shiite Muslim party, said there was "no chance at all" that Saddam might walk out a free man, perhaps on a legal technicality.
"The whole world will see this," said al-Bayati, who said he was tortured in Saddam's prisons in the 1970s. "He won't be able to walk free."
He noted that Saddam's victims are estimated in the hundreds of thousands or more, which means a huge segment of the 26 million Iraqis want to watch him answer for those crimes.
But the trial could contribute to the upheaval in Iraq by polarizing Saddam's supporters and detractors, said Walid Mohammed al-Shibibi, a Baghdad attorney and editor of a legal journal.
"This will escalate into terrorist attacks," he said.
Chalabi said the trials of Saddam and other senior figures likely would not begin before 2005. Some suspects could be indicted in the autumn but "the senior ones will not be indicted for some time," he told CNN. "Then after that ... the trials would start maybe in a few months further down the line."
Chalabi said Thursday's appearance at the tribunal, in a courthouse with a prominent clock tower inside Baghdad's sealed-off Green Zone, is expected to be videotaped for public release.
The images would be the first of Saddam the public will have seen since his Dec. 13 capture by U.S. soldiers, when a clip showed the bushy-bearded leader opening his mouth for a dental examination.
Upon their arraignment, the dozen U.S. military detainees will be given the status of Iraqi criminal suspects, which gives them the right to attorneys or appointed counsel, Chalabi said.
The first batch of Saddam's lieutenants to face the tribunal include Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali"; former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan; former deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz; and two of Saddam's half brothers.
A team of 20 foreign lawyers appointed by Saddam's wife, Sajidah, might not be permitted to represent him, al-Shibibi said.
The only foreign lawyers permitted to defend Iraqis without special permission are Palestinians and Syrians, he said. Others must seek approval from the Iraqi Bar Association, he said.
The job of trying and representing Saddam involves personal risk.
Ziad al-Khasawneh, one of Saddam's would-be defense attorneys, said in Amman, Jordan, that the defense team planned to go to Iraq but that Allawi's government had not said whether it would provide security.
"How can the defense team go to a country where it doesn't enjoy any protection? They will kill us there," said an angry al-Khasawneh.
Al-Shibibi said there are Iraqi lawyers who would agree to represent the dictator. Few would consent to release their identities, nor for that matter, would prosecutors, he said. Already, lawyers working in Iraq's justice system have received death threats.
The proceedings will rely on a mix of Iraqi criminal law, international regulations such as the Geneva Conventions, and experiences of bodies such as the Rwanda war crimes tribunal.
As much as 30 tons of documents and other evidence must be culled. And then there are the potential witnesses, which could be said to include almost every Iraqi.
"If I'm asked to testify I would be willing," al-Bayati said. "But there are so many others who suffered more. There are more serious eyewitnesses."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)