Members of Iraq’s parliament and families of Saddam Hussein’s victims will witness the former leader’s execution, planned to take place no later than tomorrow.
American and Iraqi officials said Saddam was still in the hands of American guards. The physical transfer of the former dictator to Iraqi authorities is one of the last steps before his hanging.
“There has been no change in his status,” said Tom Casey, the US State Department’s deputy spokesman. He said US Embassy officials in Baghdad told him that Saddam remained in American hands.
A senior Iraqi government official said a meeting was tonight being held between officials from Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki’s office and US officials to set a time for the execution.
Iraqi officials were gathered at an undisclosed location in the Green Zone, awaiting the arrival of US officials to set a time for the execution, the same official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to release the information.
They will then travel together to another unspecified place where Saddam would be executed, he said.
Mr Maliki has signed Saddam’s death sentence, the same senior Iraqi official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to release the information.
“We have agreed with the Americans that the handover will take place only a few minutes before he is executed,” the official said.
Saddam’s lawyers issued a statement Friday calling on “everybody to do everything to stop this unfair execution.” The statement also said the former president had been transferred from US custody, though American and Iraqi officials later denied that. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
Maliki said opposing Saddam’s execution was an insult to his victims. His office said he made the remarks in a meeting with families of people who died during Saddam’s rule.
“Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him, and there will be no review or delay in carrying out the sentence,” Mr Maliki said.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said US forces were on high alert.
“They’ll obviously take into account social dimensions that could potentially led to an increase in violence which certainly would include carrying out the sentence of Saddam Hussein,” Whitman said.
On Thursday, two half brothers visited Saddam in his cell, a member of the former dictator’s defence team, Badee Izzat Aref, told The Associated Press by telephone from the United Arab Emirates. He said the former dictator handed them his personal belongings.
A senior official at the Iraqi defence ministry also confirmed the meeting and said Saddam gave his will to one of his half brothers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Saddam’s lawyers later issued a statement saying the Americans gave permission for his belongings to be retrieved.
An Iraqi appeals court upheld Saddam’s death sentence Tuesday for the killing of 148 people who were detained after an attempt to assassinate him in the northern Iraqi city of Dujail in 1982. The court said the former president should be hanged within 30 days.
There have been disagreements among Iraqi officials in recent days as to whether Iraqi law dictates the execution must take place within 30 days and whether President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies have to approve it.
In his Friday sermon, a mosque preacher in the Shiite holy city of Najaf called Saddam’s execution “God’s gift to Iraqis”.
“Oh, God, you know what Saddam has done! He killed millions of Iraqis in prisons, in wars with neighbouring countries and he is responsible for mass graves. Oh God, we ask you to take revenge on Saddam,” said Sheikh Sadralddin al-Qubanji, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as SCIRI, the dominant party in Maliki’s coalition.
With at least 72 more Iraqis killed Thursday in violence, U.S. officials and Iraqis expressed concern about the potential for even worse bloodshed following Saddam’s execution.
On Friday, some 22 bodies bearing signs of torture were found across Baghdad, police said. Ten more were found in Baqouba north of the Iraqi capital, a morgue official said.
A suicide bomber killed nine people near a Shiite mosque north of Baghdad on Friday, police said.
A round of mortar shells also slammed into al-Maidan square in central Baghdad, wounding ten people and damaging shops and buildings in the area, police said.
Gunmen killed two employees of an oil company and another civilian in Mosul, northwest of Baghdad. Two civilians and a policeman were fatally shot in separate attacks in Musayyib, about south of the capital, police said.
US troops, meanwhile, killed six people and destroyed a weapons cache in separate raids in Baghdad and northwest of the Iraqi capital, the U.S. military said.
One of the raids targeted two buildings in the village of Thar Thar, where U.S. troops found 16 pounds of homemade explosives, two large bombs, a rocket-propelled grenade, suicide vests and multiple batteries, the military said.
Iraqi forces backed by US troops also captured 13 suspects and confiscated weapons in a raid on a mosque southeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Friday.