Conflicting reports were made in Iraq and the US Friday night regarding the time of Saddam Hussein’s execution.
Senior officials in the Iraqi judicial system reported that he would be hung at latest by Saturday, were as other sources reported the hanging would take place in the early hours of the day. In the meanwhile, Saddam's lawyers reported Friday that the condemned former leader was no longer in US custody and issued an appeal to stop his execution.
The physical hand-over of Saddam to Iraqi authorities was believed to be one of the last steps before he was to be hanged, although the lawyers' statement did not specifically say Saddam was in Iraqi hands.
"A few minutes ago we received correspondence from the Americans saying that President Saddam Hussein is no longer under the control of US forces," according to the statement faxed to The Associated Press.
Iraqi soldiers celebrate Saddam's pending execution (Photo: AFP)
US State Department spokesperson Tom Casey denied the report saying Saddam remained in US custody, AFP reported.
However, according to an Iraqi judge, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Iraqi forces took custody of Saddam, and he was already in central Baghdad.
Iraqi Parliament Constitutional Committee Chairman Baha al-Arji confirmed the judge’s claims and added that the former Iraqi president had already said goodbye to family members, gave his will, and was dressed in the traditional orange robe worn by those sentenced to death.
According to him, Saddam would be executed Saturday or Sunday, and the noose was already in position.
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has signed the death sentence against Saddam, a government official said.
But the official, who refused to be identified by name because he was not authorized to release the information, said that Iraqi authorities were not yet in control of Saddam.
"We will get him when the execution is going to be carried out," said the official, who refused to give other details.
The discrepancy could not be explained.
The defense team statement called on "everybody to do everything to stop this unfair execution."
Earlier, an Iraqi judge said that the former leader will be executed by Saturday at the latest.
"Saddam will be executed today or tomorrow," said Munir Haddad, a judge on the appeals court that upheld the former dictator's death sentence. "All the measures have been done."
Haddad is authorized to attend the execution on behalf of the judiciary. "I am ready to attend and there is no reason for delays," Haddad said.
A senior Iraqi government official said Saddam would be executed before 6 a.m. Saturday Baghdad time (0300 GMT). The time was agreed upon during a meeting between US and Iraqi officials, the official said, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“The time has been agreed upon. It will be done by six o’clock in the morning,” The official said. “The agreement was reached during a meeting between Iraqi and American officials. Saddam will be handed over shortly before the execution.”
The Defense Department said Friday that US forces in Iraq are braced for any violence that may follow the execution.
"US forces in Iraq are obviously at a high state of alert anytime because of the environment that they operate in and because of the current security situation," said spokesman Bryan Whitman. "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."
Saddam has been in US custody since he was captured in December 2004, and his lawyers said Friday that he had been handed over to Iraqi authorities.
Whitman said: "Our forces stay at a constant state of high readiness in Iraq and I would expect through this period they would do the same."
He would not comment further on any potential troop movements to strengthen security for the execution, but said the commanders in Iraq have the ability to move forces as they deem appropriate based on conditions on the ground.
Whitman also said he would not comment on anything that President Bush might be contemplating in terms of changing US war policy in Iraq or in connection with the intensive administration review now under way on American strategy there.
Roee Nahmias and AFP contributed to this report