A Bush administration spokesman said on Tuesday that the US would hand over the former Iraqi leader at "an appropriate time".

But he stopped short of publicly committing to do so by the 30 June "transfer of power" as asserted by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. On the other hand, he did not rule it out.

Allawi said earlier on Monday that Saddam and other prisoners would be given to the new Iraqi government within two weeks to prepare for trial.

Later in the day White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "We're going to turn him over at the appropriate time. We've made that very clear that we want to see him face justice by the Iraqi people for the atrocities he committed."

Saddam's safety

But when asked if the handover of Saddam and other prisoners would occur in the next two weeks, McClellan was noncommittal.

"Those are discussions we are having with the interim government," McClellan said. "We're talking to them about those issues, and about the process for turning them over... Let's let those discussions take place."

"I challenge the president the United States to provide any legal basis for setting up this tribunal to judge Saddam, or indeed for the invasion of Iraq"

Muhammad al-Rashdan,
Jordanian lawyer

Jordanian lawyer Muhammad al-Rashdan, who was asked by Saddam's daughters' to defend their father, told Aljazeera.net that the Iraqi interim government would be unable to guarantee Saddam's safety.

"How can they guarantee his safety when the Iraqi government can't even guarantee the safety of its officials. I want to ask a question: Are even the Americans safe in Iraq?"

Al-Rashdan said he was especially concerned following the publication of a Red Cross report which said Saddam had suffered "slight injuries". The lawyer said this meant he had been subjected to "torture".

Iraqi tribunal

He added: "I challenge the president the United States to provide any legal basis for setting up this tribunal to judge Saddam, or indeed for the invasion of Iraq."

"We're going to turn him over at the appropriate time. We've made that very clear that we want to see him face justice by the Iraqi people for the atrocities he committed"

Scott McClellan,
White House spokesman

US troops captured Saddam in December near his home town of Tikrit and he has been in US custody since, held as a prisoner of war at an unknown location.

The United States has agreed to give him - and other indicted officials in its custody - to the Iraqis for trial once a sovereign government sets up a special tribunal capable of conducting a fair trial after 30 June.

The tribunal plans to charge some of Saddam's associates by the end of this year, the top court administrator Salem Chalabi said last week.

It hopes former Saddam aides captured by US occupation troops will testify against him during their prosecution, which could take many months.

The aides' trials could help the tribunal prove a chain of command linking Saddam to crimes against humanity.