msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/15/2003 6:31:55 PM ET 2003-12-15T23:31:55

President Bush vowed Monday that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would face trial, but he stopped short of saying Iraqis would have complete control over how justice was carried out.

“We will work with the Iraqis to develop a way to try him that will stand international scrutiny,” the president told reporters at a White House news conference two days after Saddam was captured  by U.S. soldiers when he was found in an underground hideout in northern Iraq.

“Iraqis need to be very much involved. ... We will work with the Iraqis to develop a process,” Bush said.

He did not specifically mention the war crimes tribunal set up by the Iraqi Governing Council last week. A council member said Monday he believed Saddam could be brought to trial before the tribunal in a few weeks.

Bush declined to answer when asked whether Saddam should be executed. “I’ve got my own personal views on how he ought to be treated ... but I’m not an Iraqi citizen,” he said.

“There needs to be a public trial, and all the atrocities need to come out, and justice needs to be delivered,” he said.

Bush called Saddam's capture "a great moment for the people of Iraq." "The enemies of a free Iraq have lost their leader," he said. "Iraq is on the path to freedom."

Asked what message he might have for Saddam, Bush stated: "Good riddance … the world is better off without you, Mr. Saddam Hussein."

Iraqi council weighs in
In Baghdad, meanwhile, members of the country's Governing Council were divided on when Saddam would be brought to trial, but all said the proceedings would be televised.

The trial will begin “very soon, in the next few weeks,” Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite Muslim council member, told The Associated Press.

He and some other council members said they were sure the United States would hand Saddam over to the new Iraqi special tribunal for crimes against humanity.

“I can tell you he is going to be the first” to be tried, al-Rabii said.

But Dara Noor al-Din, another council member, said the order of trials would depend on the evidence. “Maybe he will be the first one, maybe he won’t,” he said.

Noor al-Din, a leading Kurdish judge, offered a more conservative estimate for the trial date: “Maybe four to six months.” A third council member, Adnan Pachachi, said he expected the trial to start “sometime in March.”

That would still be close to the July 1 deadline for the U.S.-led occupation authority to hand over sovereignty to a new, transitional Iraqi government. The occupation authority has suspended executions in Iraq, but al-Rabii said it would not take long to reinstate them — especially for Saddam.

Saddam will a fair trial, including “the right to employ the best lawyers in the world, if he wants,” said al-Rabii, a longtime human rights activist.

But he promised: “We will get sovereignty on the 30th of June, and I can tell you, he could be executed on the 1st of July.”

The prospect of execution troubled not only the United Nations but also Washington's strongest ally during the war, Britain, which said it would not take part in any trial that could lead to Saddam's execution.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also opposed a capital trial for Saddam.

"The U.N. does not support a death penalty. The courts we have set up have not included a death penalty. And so as secretary-general ... I am not going to now turn around and support a death penalty."

Crimes since 1968
At least 300,000 people are believed to have been killed during Saddam's 23-year presidency, many of them buried in mass graves.

Video: Next steps The special tribunal for crimes against humanity will cover crimes committed from July 17, 1968 — the day Saddam’s Baath Party came to power — until May 1, 2003 — the day Bush declared major hostilities over, said Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council. Saddam became president in 1979 but wielded vast influence starting from the early 1970s.

The tribunal will try cases stemming from mass executions of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, as well as the suppression of uprisings by Kurds and Shiite Muslims soon after the 1991 Gulf War.

Al-Hakim said it would also try cases committed against Iran — with which Iraq fought a bloody 1980-88 war — and against Kuwait, which Iraq invaded in 1990, sparking the Gulf War.

Prosecutors will use a growing cache of documents seized from the former regime to try Saddam and others. Evidence also will come from the excavation of some of the 270 mass graves in Iraq that are believed to hold at least 300,000 sets of remains.

Bush chats with father
The Bush family has a long history with Saddam. The president’s father, who was the target of an assassination plot by Saddam, waged the United States’ first war against Iraq but pulled out without toppling the former dictator.

Bush said he refrained from picking up the phone to call his parents Saturday after he received a telephone call from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who told him it appeared that U.S. troops had captured Saddam.

“What I didn’t want to have happen is that there be this rush of enthusiasm and hope and all of a sudden it turn out not to be the person that we would hope it would be, so I didn’t talk to my family,” Bush said. “I told Laura, of course. And pretty much went to bed early Saturday night.”

The president received confirmation that the man apprehended was indeed Saddam when national security adviser Condoleezza Rice called him at 5:15 a.m. Sunday.

“We got dressed and hustled over to the Oval Office to start making calls,” Bush said. “One of the calls I did receive was from my dad.”

Even speaking to his father, Bush said, he was still careful to play down his glee.

“‘Congratulations. It’s a great day for the country,’” Bush quoted his father as saying.

“I said, ‘It’s a greater day for the Iraqi people.’ Saturday was a great day for the people who have suffered under this tyrant.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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