He said this in an interview on Wednesday with the Arabic language daily al-Sharq al-Awsat.

The death penalty was applied in Iraq but was abolished by the US-led occupation's administrator, Paul Bremer, last year. Many Iraqi government members now want it back in time for Saddam Hussein's trial.

Iraqi justice minister Malik Duhan al-Hasan has been stressing that Saddam Hussein must be executed.

"Executing Saddam Hussein as soon as possible is the best for all Iraqis, and the longer the trial takes the more negative impact it will have on the general situation," al-Hasan told the Iraqi news website karbalanews.net.

He said the death sentence could be easily issued because Saddam Hussein "ran away from the battlefield" after the occupation of Baghdad. Iraqi law under his rule decreed death for soldiers who flee from battle.

Saddam meets panel

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the first meeting took place between Saddam Hussein and the tribunal set up to try him.

"I am Saddam Hussein al-Majid, president of the Republic of Iraq," the imprisoned president said haughtily as he greeted the head of an Iraqi tribunal, who talked him through his upcoming hearing.

Power of attorney given to 20
lawyers to defend Saddam

Saddam wore his trademark moustache, a grey dishdash, or traditional Arab dress, and appeared to have lost a lot of weight, an assistant to the tribunal's head, Salim Chalabi, said.

The former leader greeted Chalabi and his colleagues who visited him at a high-security jail in Baghdad with a "cold hello," the assistant said.

"And then he asked: 'Are you going to question us today?'"

Disdain

Showing his disdain for his visitors during the five-minute meeting, Saddam remained seated as everyone around him stood, according to the assistant.

Legal custody of Saddam and 11 of his former aides were handed to the new caretaker Iraqi government earlier in the day, but the US military will remain in charge of their security.

The process started at 5am (0100 GMT) said the assistant, adding that he went into Chalabi's office to gather some papers and then the head of the tribunal along with a group of other people got into a convoy of cars that went to see Saddam and his lieutenants at a location that he refused to disclose.

Saddam Hussein is being held at Camp Cropper, a US occupation prison at Baghdad's former international airport, according to a humanitarian organisation.

Prisoner uniforms

"We arrived at about 8:45am (0445 GMT) and we had to wait about 15 minutes before Saddam Hussein walked into the room," he said.

All the other 11 detainees were in prisoner uniforms but of different colours and came into the room separately one after the other, added the assistant.

The second one to meet Chalabi and his team after Saddam left the room was his cousin and close confidant Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali for his alleged gassing of Kurds in 1988, who was arrested in August.

"He said: 'I am tired, I am tired,'" said the assistant.

Then Iraq's former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz appeared. "He said nothing like the others who gave their names," said Chalabi's assistant.

As for former vice-president Taha Yassine Ramadan, arrested also in August "he looked like he put on weight in prison," said the assistant.

Abd al-Hamid Mahmud, Saddam's former secretary arrested in June 2003, said: "I am innocent and one day you will discover that."

Chalabi's assistant said: "The whole encounter with Saddam and his lieutenants lasted 15 minutes."

Earlier Chalabi said after his meeting with Saddam that the ousted leader was in good health.

Saddam will be the first of the 12 prisoners to be charged on Thursday.