Pentagon Calls Hussein a POW
Declaration Formally Binds U.S. to Geneva Conventions
By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2004; Page A15
The Pentagon announced yesterday that Saddam Hussein, whose legal status had been in question since his capture last month, is indeed an enemy prisoner of war.
The announcement carried implications for the treatment of the former Iraqi leader and the circumstances under which he may eventually be brought to trial.
"Saddam's status is that he is an enemy prisoner of war," Larry DiRita, the Pentagon's top spokesman, told reporters late yesterday. "The lawyers have determined that."
DiRita and other defense officials said the legal determination will change little in the way Hussein has been handled since U.S. forces found him on Dec. 13 hiding in a covered hole in the ground on an Iraqi farm near the city of Tikrit. U.S. authorities have said he is being treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war. "From a practical standpoint, it really doesn't do anything," one senior defense official said of yesterday's announcement.
But the official declaration of Hussein's status does make it a formal U.S. responsibility to abide by the Geneva rules.
Among other things, those rules stipulate that prisoners not be subjected to intimidation or insult and not be turned into a public curiosity. The accords also entitle prisoners to proper food, freedom to practice religion and monthly pay depending on rank.
Additionally, prisoners must be allowed visits by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to check on the conditions of captivity. An ICRC spokesman in Washington said yesterday that the organization has approached U.S. authorities in Baghdad about gaining access to Hussein.
The conventions will not prevent Hussein from facing trial on war crimes charges. But they require that any such proceedings be handled by an international tribunal or an occupying power -- in this case, the United States. This provision could frustrate U.S. plans to turn Hussein over to an Iraqi court on charges of genocide and other atrocities.
Although the Pentagon's announcement came several weeks after Hussein's capture, officials familiar with the department's internal deliberations said the general counsel's office had reached an early consensus that Hussein deserved prisoner-of-war status.
"There was a presumption that given his former position as president and commander in chief of Iraq's military, and the fact that he was captured in an armed conflict, he was an enemy prisoner of war," the senior official said.
But until yesterday, the Pentagon had maintained that the issue was still under review. As recently as Tuesday, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked about Hussein's status at a Pentagon news conference, he said the Pentagon's lawyers had good reasons for Hussein not having been declared a prisoner of war.
Yesterday, aides said Rumsfeld had spoken without the benefit of an updated legal briefing. He received one yesterday.
Defense officials left open the possibility that Hussein's status could be reevaluated and changed in the light of new information that might emerge about his activities, particularly his role in the insurgency that has sprouted since President Bush declared the end of major hostilities last May. A finding, for instance, that Hussein had been involved in unlawful combat action could lead U.S. authorities to drop his prisoner-of-war status.
U.S. authorities continue to interrogate Hussein at an undisclosed location in Iraq, with the CIA taking the lead role. No reports have surfaced publicly of any useful information that he has volunteered.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview with CBS News yesterday, said the Bush administration has yet to decide when to hand Hussein over to Iraqi authorities. "We want the Iraqis to be full partners in this, and we believe the credibility of the new Iraqi government will be measured by how they handle this horrible dictator," Powell said