Saddam may face death penalty, say Iraqis

Iraq could execute former leader Saddam Hussein if he is found guilty, the director of the country's war crimes tribunal system said yesterday.

Salem Chalabi, in charge of setting up a tribunal to try members of the ousted regime, said that after the Iraqi government gains sovereignty on 30 June, it will have the power to end the suspension of the death penalty decreed by the US occupation chief, Paul Bremer.

"The Iraqi government has to affirmatively take that step to lift the suspension," Mr Chalabi said on television yesterday. "If the suspension imposed by Ambassador Bremer is lifted there is the possibility of the death penalty being imposed", on those convicted of murder or rape.

Mr Chalabi said tribunal officials were "negotiating quite intensively with the coalition forces" about taking custody of Saddam and other detained members of his regime after the handover of power.

Reports claimed that coalition sources said a deal had been done for the new Iraqi administration, which would take legal custody of Saddam when it assumes control of the country on 30 June. US forces will continue to guard him.

In Iraq yesterday, insurgents tightened their grip on the vital airport road in Baghdad, killing two Iraqi soldiers and wounding 11 others - four critically - when they detonated a bomb beside the road as a convoy passed. The US Army concedes it no longer fully controls the road linking Baghdad to the airport by insisting that members of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, contractors and other foreigners travel on the four-lane highway only at certain times, totalling six hours a day. During these periods, traffic will be protected by stepped-up helicopter and vehicle patrols.

The airport road is probably the most important in Iraq, and the loss of the airport to US forces last year signalled the beginnings of the regime's collapse. The continued assertions by the Iraqi information minister at the time that the Iraqi army still held the airport were widely derided abroad.

Baghdad airport is mainly used by the military but there are a small number of civilian flights. Along the road, palm trees have been cut down and grass and shrubs burnt to deny guerrillas cover but attacks have increased over the past month. Roadside bombs, such as that used yesterday, typically consist of old 155mm and 122mm shells detonated either by a command wire or a remote control like those used to open garage doors or operate a child's toy.

The patrol attacked yesterday consisted of American and Iraqi soldiers. US soldiers said the ambushers waited for them to pass, then blew up the Iraqi vehicle. American troops took the Iraq wounded to a US medical treatment centre. As they waited for news of the wounded, Iraqi soldiers wept and were hugged by their American comrades, agency reports said.

"The hard-core terrorists don't care who they kill," said Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Ryan, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment. "These guys are bigger targets than we are." The implication is that the insurgents are trying to inflict losses on the fledgling Iraqi army, still only 7,000 strong, before it can be organised.

Another reason why an Iraqi unit was attacked yesterday is that Iraqi soldiers are more vulnerable, because they are far less well-armed and protected than Americans. But the US wants to show Iraqi forces playing an active security role.

A typical joint US-Iraqi patrol on the airport consists of a US Humvee and, 50 yards back, a truck filled with Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqis, generally, do not have bullet-proof vests, sometimes do not wear helmets and carry old Kalashnikovs.

Violence continues at a high level throughout Iraq. On Saturday, there was an attempt to assassinate the Health Minister, Dr Aladdin al-Alwan, which failed but was followed by a gun battle in which seven Iraqi policemen were wounded. Ten Iraqis were killed and 12 wounded in battles with US forces north of Baghdad. A US Marine was killed in Anbar province west of Baghdad.

In Baghdad there were two loud explosions in the evening, and, earlier in the day, a mortar round landed near the Central Bank, wounding six policemen and four civilians. A US air strike in Fallujah on Saturday killed 22 people but there is still no agreement about who died. The Americans say that the two houses destroyed were used by militants led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is blamed for leading the suicide bombing campaign.

But Iraqi officers in Fallujah denied this was true. "We inspected the damage, we looked through the bodies of the women and children and elderly. This was a family," said Brigadier Nouri Aboud of the Fallujah Brigade, the force of former Iraqi soldiers nominally in control of the city. He said there were no signs of foreigners in the houses, and added: "Zarqawi and his men have no presence in Fallujah."

¿ A videotape showing a South Korean hostage begging for his life and pleading with his government to withdraw its troops from Iraq was broadcast on the Arab television network al-Jazeera last night.The kidnappers identified themselves as belonging to a group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which is linked to al-Qa'ida. They gave South Korea 24 hours to meet its demand or "we will send you the head of this Korean". A South Korean station said the hostage was Kim Sun-il, 33, an employee of a South Korean company. It said he was captured in the Fallujah area.

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