The Union of Arab Lawyers invited legal experts from Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan to Cairo on 4 January to discuss forming a defence committee.

At the end of the meeting, they concluded that Saddam should be treated as prisoner of war, and his whereabouts must be disclosed.

They demanded that the International Committee of the Red Cross be allowed to visit him to ensure proper imprisonment conditions.

And they agreed that as he is still the constitutional president of Iraq, the US cannot legitimately incarcerate him.

Breaching international law

The lawyers also accused the US of breaching international law by occupying Iraq and arresting Iraqi citizens without a warrant from an international body.

Hasan Umar, the Egyptian international law counsel told Aljazeera.net that according to international law, US forces had kidnapped the Iraqi president.

"In 1960 the UN criminalised occupation by military force, and considered occupation as an anti-human rights act. Resolution 3013 of the General Assembly considers any foreign forces on another country's soil as mercenary units."

He added: "Accordingly, such units are not allowed to take prisoners of war, so what they are doing is actually kidnapping people."

Illegal war

Daniel Joyner, an international law expert at Britain's Warwick University, told Aljazeera.net that he agreed the Iraq war was illegal.

"In 1960 the UN criminalised occupation by military force, and considered occupation as an anti-human rights act. Resolution 3013 of the General Assembly considers any foreign forces on another country's soil as mercenary units"

Hasan Umar, Egyptian international law council

But he is not convinced there is any authority the Arab lawyers can appeal to.

He said: "It's a serious point that I understand, but who can they make this point to, the International Court of Justice? First of all, it would have to be the government of Iraq bringing the case.

"If Saddam Hussein from his jail cell were to write a letter to the Hague saying he wanted to bring a case then you would get an interesting legal battle.

"They would first have to decide if he was still the legitimate leader before they studied the legal merits of the case."

No kidnap

However, Joyner dismissed the assertion that Saddam was kidnapped because UN General Assembly resolutions cannot proscribe international law.

But he agreed that Saddam should be afforded POW status.

"The US has so far denied any POW status," he said. "The reason is obvious - it's so they can interrogate him longer. But I think he should be protected by the 1949 Geneva Convention."

He added: "International law is not one big regime - there are different sources of law. The question of the legality of war itself can be separated from questions about what happened after the occupation began.

"As long as Saddam Hussein is afforded POW status his arrest should be governed by international humanitarian law."