The US declared former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein an enemy prisoner of war Friday, ending uncertainty and confusion as to the legal status of the deposed Iraqi leader.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was informed Friday that Pentagon lawyers concluded over the past weeks that Saddam met the definition of an enemy prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said.
"Saddam's status is he is an enemy prisoner of war," said DiRita, a close aide to Rumsfeld.
However, DiRita left the door open to revisiting the question at a later date, saying that the conventions establish procedures for re-evaluating his legal status.
"Should information come to light later, then there is a process to evaluate that information," he said, adding that "unless and until" such new information came to light Saddam's status would be that of an enemy prisoner of war.
Saddam's legal status appeared to have taken the Pentagon's senior leadership by surprise.
News of the determination was disclosed by defense officials earlier in the day in response to routine press inquiries.
"We have determined he does have prisoner of war status," said a defense official, who asked not to be identified. "There is no formal declaration. It's not required, and we haven't made one."
But it then took the Pentagon hours to publicly confirm the disclosure as officials conferred with the Pentagon's general counsel.
Senior defense officials meanwhile insisted that Saddam's legal status remained under review and no decisions had been made.
Saddam has been held at an undisclosed location in Iraq since his capture by US forces on Dec. 13. US officials say he has not been very cooperative since then.
It was unclear what impact the clarification of his status would have for Saddam, who already had been accorded treatment due a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention. The International Committee of the Red Cross has put in a request to visit Saddam, who is entitled to such visits under the convention.
"He is being treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and the convention permits that," DiRita said.
Rumsfeld had said almost immediately after Saddam's capture that he would be treated as a prisoner of war, but gave no further details.
As recently as Tuesday, Rumsfeld rebuffed questions about Saddam's legal status, telling reporters "it's a mire, if I start getting in -- excuse the use of the word -- it's a morass if I start getting into it."
The US released a video of Saddam, with long hair and shaggy beard, being inspected by a doctor shortly after his capture. The Geneva Convention bans exposing a prisoner to insult or public curiosity, and the video's release was criticized. The US administration insisted the video was intended to show the Iraqi public that it no longer had anything to fear from Saddam and that it would save lives.
A top Vatican official denounced the release of images showing Saddam being treated "like a cow." There was also consternation in parts of the Arab world.