Iraq could execute former leader Saddam Hussein if he is found guilty, the director of the country’s war crimes tribunal system said yesterday.

Salem Chalabi, in charge of setting up a tribunal to try members of the ousted regime, said that after the Iraqi government gains sovereignty on 30 June, it will have the power to end the suspension of the death penalty decreed by the US occupation chief, Paul Bremer.

“The Iraqi government has to affirmatively take that step to lift the suspension,” Mr Chalabi said on television yesterday. “If the suspension imposed by Ambassador Bremer is lifted there is the possibility of the death penalty being imposed”, on those convicted of murder or rape.

Mr Chalabi said tribunal officials were “negotiating quite intensively with the coalition forces” about taking custody of Saddam and other detained members of his regime after the handover of power.

Reports claimed that coalition sources said a deal had been done for the new Iraqi administration, which would take legal custody of Saddam when it assumes control of the country on 30 June. US forces will continue to guard him.

In Iraq yesterday, insurgents tightened their grip on the vital airport road in Baghdad, killing two Iraqi soldiers and wounding 11 others – four critically – when they detonated a bomb beside the road as a convoy passed. The US Army concedes it no longer fully controls the road linking Baghdad to the airport by insisting that members of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, contractors and other foreigners travel on the four-lane highway only at certain times, totalling six hours a day. During these periods, traffic will be protected by stepped-up helicopter and vehicle patrols.

The airport road is probably the most important in Iraq, and the loss of the airport to US forces last year signalled the beginnings of the regime’s collapse. The continued assertions by the Iraqi information minister at the time that the Iraqi army still held the airport were widely derided abroad.

Baghdad airport is mainly used by the military but there are a small number of civilian flights. Along the road, palm trees have been cut down and grass and shrubs burnt to deny guerrillas cover but attacks have increased over the past month. Roadside bombs, such as that used yesterday, typically consist of old 155mm and 122mm shells detonated either by a command wire or a remote control like those used to open garage doors or operate a child’s toy.

The patrol attacked yesterday consisted of American and Iraqi soldiers. US soldiers said the ambushers waited for them to pass, then blew up the Iraqi vehicle. American troops took the Iraq wounded to a US medical treatment centre. As they waited for news of the wounded, Iraqi soldiers wept and were hugged by their American comrades, agency reports said.

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