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Last-Ditch Attempt To Save Saddam Hussein

Lawyers for Saddam Hussein on Friday made a last-minute appeal to an American court to avert execution in Iraq, asking a judge to block his transfer from U.S. custody to the hands of Iraqi officials.

There is no official timetable for Hussein's execution, but it appears to be imminent.

"Saddam will be executed today or tomorrow," said Munir Haddad, an Iraqi judge on the appeals court that recently upheld the sentence. "All the measures have been done."

Hussein's lawyers filed documents Friday afternoon asking for a stay of execution. The 21-page request was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington before Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

Attorneys argued that because Hussein also faces a civil lawsuit in Washington, he has rights as a civil defendant that would be violated if he is executed. He has not received notice of those rights and the consequences that the lawsuit would have on his estate, his attorneys said.

"To protect those rights, defendant Saddam Hussein requests an order of this court providing a stay of his execution until further notice of this court," attorney Nicholas Gilman wrote.

A similar request by the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, Awad Hamed al-Bandar, was denied Thursday and is under appeal. Al-Bandar also faces execution. The Justice Department argued in that case that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction to interfere with the judicial process of another country.

Al-Bandar argued that his trial violated his rights under the U.S. Constitution, but the Justice Department countered that foreigners being tried in foreign courts are not protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The appeals court did not indicate when it would rule on the issue.

There have been conflicting reports Friday over whether the United States still had Saddam in custody, adding to the speculation about when the ex-Iraqi president would be hanged.

Saddam remains in a jail cell in U.S. custody — but once he is given over to Iraqi officials, he could head straight for his execution, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.

The United States denied that Saddam had been turned over to Iraqi authorities, contradicting a statement by the former Iraqi president's lawyer.

"There has been no change in Saddam's status," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Friday. Casey said the information he had was provided by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

"I don't have any more details to offer you," he told reporters at the State Department. Casey reiterated the Bush administration's view that "we think it's very important there be accountability." He said "it was up to the Iraqis" to formally request that Saddam be brought forward for execution.

Asked when that might occur, Casey said, "I really don't have a timeline on this."

The White House declined to comment on the timing of an execution. Saddam has been in U.S. custody since he was captured in December 2003.

Deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel, talking to reporters Friday from Crawford, Texas, where President Bush was vacationing, said the execution of Saddam was a matter for the Iraqi government. Earlier, the White House said the appeals court decision to uphold the sentence marked an important milestone for the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.

The physical handover of Saddam to Iraqi authorities is believed to be one of the last steps before he was to be hanged, although the lawyers' statement did not specifically say Saddam was in Iraqi hands.

"A few minutes ago we received correspondence from the Americans saying that President Saddam Hussein is no longer under the control of U.S. forces," according to the statement faxed to The Associated Press.

The U.S. military in Baghdad neither confirmed or denied that the transfer has taken place, citing security reasons, reports CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick.

In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has signed the death sentence against Saddam, a government official said.

But the official, who refused to be identified by name because he was not authorized to release the information, said Iraqi authorities were not yet in control of Saddam.

"We will get him when the execution is going to be carried out," said the official, who refused to give other details.

The defense team statement called on "everybody to do everything to stop this unfair execution."

Saddam's chief defense attorney, Khalil al-Dulaimi, said Friday that American officials had called him and asked him to authorize someone to receive Saddam's personal belongings from the U.S. military prison where the ousted Iraqi leader is being held. Al-Dulaimi said he had not yet done that.

The Pentagon said Friday that U.S. forces in Iraq are braced for any violence that may follow Hussein's execution.

"U.S. forces in Iraq are obviously at a high state of alert anytime because of the environment that they operate in and because of the current security situation," said spokesman Bryan Whitman. "They'll obviously take into account social dimensions that could potentially lead to an increase in violence, which certainly would include carrying out the sentence of Saddam Hussein."

Said Whitman: "Our forces stay at a constant state of high readiness in Iraq, and I would expect through this period they would do the same."

He wouldn't comment further on any potential troop movements to strengthen security for the execution, but said the commanders in Iraq have the ability to move forces as they deem appropriate based on conditions on the ground.

Whitman also said he wouldn't comment on anything that President Bush might be contemplating in terms of changing U.S. war policy in Iraq or in connection with the intensive administration review now under way on American strategy there.

Issam Ghazzawi, another member of Saddam's defense team, said there was no way of knowing when Saddam's execution would take place.

"The only person who can predict the execution of the president ... is God and Bush," Ghazzawi said on Thursday.

Saddam was being held at the American military prison known as Camp Cropper.

National Security adviser Mouffak al Rubaie said fear of reprisals by Saddam loyalists has kept the date of the execution secret.

"I think the sooner the better," al Rubaie told CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston.

Iraqi officials have said that Saddam's final moments will be videotaped by the government.

"We will video everything," al Rubaie said. "All documentation will be videoed. Taking him from his cell to the execution is going to be videoed, and the actual execution will be documented and videoed."

It's not clear whether the videotape will be broadcast on Iraqi television.

In a farewell letter posted on the Internet Wednesday, Saddam urged Iraqis to embrace "brotherly coexistence" and not to hate the U.S.-led troops.

"I call on you not to hate because hate does not leave space for a person to be fair and it makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking," said the letter.

Saddam is in the midst of another trial, one in which he's charged with genocide and other crimes during a 1987-88 military crackdown on Kurds in northern Iraq. An estimated 180,000 Kurds died during the operation. That trial was adjourned until Jan. 8, and experts have said the trial of Saddam's co-defendants is likely to continue even if he is executed.

Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group, says Saddam was certainly a human rights violator, but Iraq's government shouldn't execute him. "The true test of respect for human rights comes when the human rights of someone who has violated in unspeakable ways the human rights of many millions of people comes into play," said the group's Richard Dicker.

In other recent developments in Iraq:

  • A suicide bomber killed nine civilians north of Baghdad on Friday afternoon, police said. At least a dozen people were also injured when the bomber detonated his explosives belt in Khalis, 50 miles north of the Iraqi capital, police said.
  • Two Iranian diplomats detained by U.S. troops in Iraq were released early Friday in Baghdad, Iran's state-run television and news agency reported. The Iranians were in Iraq on the invitation of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, officials have said. Their detention was announced on Monday.
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