Legal custody of Saddam Hussein and 11 other senior figures from his regime was transferred to the Iraqis today, according to reports.
An international official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the defendants were informed individually of their rights as the coalition ceded legal custody of them to Iraq.
An Iraqi judge reportedly witnessed the proceedings.
There was no immediate official confirmation from Iraqi authorities of the transfer, but the new Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, had said that the legal – but not custodial – transfer of the 12 defendants would take place today.
“The first step has happened,” Salem Chalabi, the director of the Iraqi special tribunal that will try Saddam, said. “I met him [Saddam] earlier today to explain his rights and what will happen,” he said, refusing to elaborate.
The move comes ahead of a first court appearance by Saddam and the 11 other detainees, scheduled for tomorrow. Mr Allawi announced the trial yesterday.
It will be the former dictator’s first public appearance since he was shown, bedraggled and unkempt, being medically examined after his capture at the end of last year.
Despite being in the legal custody of Iraq, Saddam and the other detainees will still be guarded by US forces. Washington is anxious that there be no chance of their escaping.
Saddam will remain in a US-controlled jail, guarded by Americans, until such time, not expected in the short term, as the Iraqis are ready to take “physical custody” of him.
However, the legal transfer means that Saddam and the other former members of his regime are no longer prisoners of war – entitled to the protection of the Geneva convention – but criminal defendants, who will be treated in accordance with Iraqi law.