In Iraq, US hands over Tariq Aziz, other Saddam Hussein-era officials
Today the US transferred to Iraq almost all the prisoners it has held in custody for seven years, including Tariq Aziz and other officials in Saddam Hussein's regime that were featured in a "most wanted" deck-of-cards. But some former officials remain in limbo – waiting to be tried in a special court.
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The ace of spades – Saddam Hussein – is dead and gone, executed four years ago. His thuggish sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a gun battle in Mosul. Others were released several years ago at the request of Iraqi authorities.
Five convicted of crimes against humanity are on death row while at least seven of the wanted men are still at large.
But as the US hands over almost all the prisoners it has held in custody for seven years – along with the keys to its last detention facility, Camp Cropper, tomorrow – some of the scientists, technocrats, and military leaders who gave themselves up are in limbo.
The former regime officials – still bitterly despised by many Iraqis but considered victims by others – face trial in the same special court that tried Hussein and ordered his execution. But the wheels of justice are turning slowly.
Former oil minister may know too much about illegal oil contracts
At least 26 former regime officials have been transferred from US to Iraqi custody over the past three days, bringing the total number transferred over the years to nearly five dozen. Iraq's Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim singled out former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, who became known as the international face of Iraq under Saddam, in announcing the transfers Wednesday.
"As of today, we have received 55 former regime officials, the main one is Tariq Aziz, and the others are the oil and culture ministers," said Mr. Ibrahim.
Hussein’s former oil minister, Gen. Amer Mohammad Rasheed, has an unlikely ally in Charles Duelfer, a former US official who spent hundreds of hours debriefing Iraqi officials while leading the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Duelfer headed the 1,400-member Iraq Survey Group, which concluded in a 2004 report that there was no reason for Rasheed and others to be detained any longer.
Despite that, one US file has Rasheed – a former Air Force general – being held because of “involvement in the chemical and biological weapons program.” Another says that he is a threat because of his role in the former regime.
“He’s never been affiliated with criminal activities or the horrendous things that the regime did. There is no argument that he is a danger because of WMD management experience – his expertise is in managing large engineering projects,” says Mr. Duelfer, who believes Rasheed's knowledge about who benefited from illegal oil contracts may be behind his continued detention. “Rasheed knew so much about the allocation of oil in the regime to so many characters, including some in the current government. It seemed to me there was a concern that he simply knew too much."
Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, in charge of US detainee operations, including Camp Cropper, says his file on Rasheed doesn’t indicate that he’s a security threat.
“I haven’t read everything there is but ... there’s none of that here,” says Cannon, looking at profile of each of the prisoners in his custody.
Precarious job of trying Saddam-era officials
The former regime officials are being held under a special Iraqi court, known as the High Criminal Court, first established by the US to deal with crimes of the former government. Its judges are appointed by the prime minister but say they have complete independence. It’s a precarious job – almost all have received death threats, and one has been assassinated – fueling the argument that the former regime officials should be tried in an international court.