A similar hybrid of local and foreign judges and lawyers is being used to deal with war crimes trials stemming from the decade-long civil conflict in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, although human rights experts are concerned about the precedent this model would establish if used in Iraq.
"It's a practical approach, but the international community would like to see these people dealt with in a way that conforms with the developing law on crimes against humanity, especially given that these crimes are so much more severe than anything dealt with anywhere recently," said Charles Forest, chief executive of Indict, an international group based in London that is amassing information on Iraqi war crimes.
After the trials of the top leaders, the next level--potentially dealing with hundreds or even thousands of offenses, because the war crimes go back a full generation--would be left to local courts, U.S. officials say.
"The pattern globally is that midlevel cases can be dealt with by a conventional domestic system which is accepted and known by the people. It also serves as an important means of reviving the justice system," said an administration official who requested anonymity.
The third and largest group of cases might never go to trial but would instead be worked out through a group similar to the Truth and Justice Commission in South Africa that would grant a form of amnesty in exchange for a full accounting of crimes committed.
"One thing we have learned with war crimes around the world is that it's impossible to prosecute each and every perpetrator, as the number is so large," Prosper said. "You have to deal with the leaders to send a strong signal that justice will prevail. But the treatment of the balance of cases is more flexible, depending on the needs of society."
To avoid violent retribution after regime change in Baghdad, the exile group of jurists has issued a communique calling on fellow Iraqis not to take the law into their own hands.
"There are millions of Baath party members who joined the party mainly to advance their jobs or survive but aren't guilty of crimes," said Sarraf, who attended the meeting last month in Italy. "Then there's the guy in the army who killed someone on orders and to stay alive. Those individuals who can raise defenses such as 'involuntarily killed on threat of losing their own lives' ought to be allowed to use that as a defense."
The decision to prepare for war crimes prosecutions follows 11 years of inaction on Iraqi war crimes despite a wealth of data, eyewitness accounts and more than 18 tons of seized Iraqi documents, according to the Iraqi opposition and human rights groups.
Ironically, the first Bush administration opted not to push for such prosecutions even after the 1991 uprisings, which were called for personally by President George H.W. Bush.
The Clinton administration also did not push the U.N. Security Council for either a tribunal or a "commission of experts" on Iraqi war crimes, and that resulted in missed opportunities to put pressure on Hussein's regime, according to Iraqi and human rights groups.
"Over the years, the U.S. has failed to take a leadership role in bringing this regime to justice, which could have been done without toppling it. The U.S. could have pushed for an apparatus that would demonstrate the regime's criminality and further isolate it by obligating other countries to arrest and extradite any Iraqi official who left Iraq," Amitay said.
"We might not be where we are today if there had been action."
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Accusations Against Hussein
War crimes claims against Saddam Hussein:
Genocide of the Kurds: About 100,000 Kurds were killed in eight 1988 military offensives during systematic extermination campaign code named Al Anfal, or 11the spoils.'' Chemical weapons were used to kill, terrorize and force northern Kurds to flee.
``Ethnic cleansing'': More than 120,000 Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrians around Kirkuk have been forcibly expelled since 1991 to `arabize' the oil-rich region. Expulsions have accelerated over the last year.
Mass civilian executions: After the 1991 uprisings in northern Kurdistan and the Shiite-dominated south, between 30,000 and 60,000 people were killed in hospitals, homes, mosques and streets. Civilians were tied to tanks and used as human shields, corralled into stadiums or suburbs where helicopter gunships opened fire, drowned by being weighted with rocks and thrown into the Shatt al Arab waterway, and thrown from windows.
Prison cleansing: Thousands of mainly political prisoners have been executed in irregular emptying of jails. At Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, about 2,000 were shot or hanged in 1988 in less than 48 hours.