updated 5/11/2004 4:00:59 PM ET 2004-05-11T20:00:59

The head of Iraq’s war crimes tribunal said Tuesday that the United States had pledged to hand over former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and about 100 other suspects to Iraqi authorities before July 1 if Iraq was ready to take them into custody. U.S. officials denied that any decision had been reached.

“The coalition will hand them over if we are able to hold them in custody,” the official, Salem Chalabi, told The Associated Press.

Salem Chalabi said that trials would likely begin early next year — again, “if we are ready” — and that judges would receive “files” on the suspects at the end of this year.

He told local reporters earlier that Saddam would definitely be handed over before July 1, when Iraq assumes sovereignty from its U.S.-led occupiers, and that trials would begin early next year.

“We will put 100 people ... including Saddam Hussein, on trial,” he told the reporters. The suspects, he added, “will be delivered to us by the coalition before the transfer of power.”

U.S. officials, who are holding Saddam in an undisclosed location, disputed the report. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he knew nothing about handing over Saddam.

Richard Boucher, a spokesman for the State Department, also said that as far as he knew no decision had been reached on specifically when or in what time frame to hand over Saddam, who has been in U.S. custody since he was captured Dec. 13.

A Defense Department official said on condition of anonymity that the U.S. intention remained to have Saddam tried by the Iraqi people.

Chalabi said the suspects to be handed over included Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s. Chalabi has said al-Majid could be one of the first to stand trial.

Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s former deputy prime minister, also will be handed over, he said. Aziz is in U.S. custody, but he is not on the U.S. “most-wanted” list, and it was unclear what charges he might face.

Chalabi indicated to the AP that Saddam’s trial would happen later, rather than earlier. “Our policy is indict junior officials first so that we can build a case against Saddam,” he said.

No charges filed yet
No charges have yet been filed, but human rights groups have said the tribunal expects to try leaders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The United States estimates that Saddam’s government killed at least 300,000 Iraqis during its rule. Some human rights groups say the number is closer to 1 million.

Chalabi said the case against Saddam would be built on cases representative of his abuses while in power.

“The accusations against Saddam include the massacre of Kurds in Halabja, murdering Shiite clerics and the invasion of Kuwait,” he said. “We can’t try him for everything. We have to concentrate on some things.”

It was not clear who would represent Saddam at his trial, but a Jordanian lawyer, Mohammad Rashdan, has said he and 19 other attorneys have been appointed by Saddam’s first wife, Sajida Khairallah Telfah.

He said Tuesday that he would try to prevent the Americans from handing Saddam over to the tribunal.

“We will take a legal action to prevent the United States from handing over the prisoners of war to people like Salem Chalabi,” he told the AP. “It is possible that we choose a country which respects the law, like France, and we might take the same move in Switzerland.”

Rashdan said Monday that his defense team was “deeply concerned” about Saddam’s welfare in U.S. custody after revelations that U.S. military police humiliated and abused prisoners in their care.

The team of lawyers includes Washington lawyer Curtis Doebbler, who represents terrorist suspects held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and French lawyer Emmanuel Ludot. Chalabi has said that the lead attorney needed to be Iraqi but that other members of the team could come from other countries.

Trials to be televised
Chalabi arrived in Kuwait to collect evidence against the suspects. He acknowledged that the prosecutions would be a complicated task.

“The coalition authority has 15 kilometers [10 miles] of documents, and the Iraqis have 30 tons,” he said.

Iraqi leaders have said the trials will be televised in the interest of exposing Saddam’s atrocities and beginning a process of national healing.

They had earlier predicted that Saddam’s trial could begin as early as this summer, but the complexities of organizing the trial made that unrealistic. Many Iraqis have said Saddam’s verdict — guilty — and sentence — death — are a foregone conclusion, but tribunal officials have insisted that the trial will be fair.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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