BAGHDAD, Iraq - As Saddam Hussein's lawyer made a last-ditch effort to impede his execution Thursday, the White House was preparing for the ousted dictator to be hanged as early as this weekend, a senior administration official said.
The timetable was based on information that U.S. officials in Baghdad received from the Iraqi government. But, there were differing accounts.
The plea from Saddam's attorney came as the U.S. military reported the deaths of eight more troops and announced that Iraqi forces, backed by American forces, captured an al-Qaida in Iraq cell leader believed responsible for the June kidnapping of two soldiers who were found tortured and killed.
Iraq's deputy justice minister, Bosho Ibrahim, said Saddam shouldn't be hanged for another few weeks. "The law does not say within 30 days, it says after the lapse of 30 days," Ibrahim said.
He did not explain the discrepancy between his interpretation and the court's, nor could he give a specific execution date.
With at least 72 more Iraqis killed in sectarian violence, U.S. officials and Iraqis expressed concern about the potential for even worse bloodshed following Saddam's execution. His lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, said transferring Saddam to Iraqi authorities could be the trigger.
"If the American administration insists in handing the president to the Iraqis, it would commit a great strategic mistake which would lead to the escalation of the violence in Iraq and the eruption of a destructive civil war," al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Iraq's highest court on Tuesday rejected Saddam's appeal against his conviction and death sentence for the killing of 148 Shiites in the northern city of Dujail in 1982. The court said the former president should be hanged within 30 days.
Al-Dulaimi, Saddam's lawyer, said the ousted leader should enjoy protection from his enemies as a "prisoner of war" and remain in U.S. custody.
"According to the international conventions, it is forbidden to hand a prisoner of war to his adversary," al-Dulaimi said.
"I urge all the international and legal organizations, the United Nations secretary-general, the Arab League and all the leaders of the world to rapidly prevent the American administration from handing the president to the Iraqi authorities," al-Dulaimi said.
An official close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said Saddam would remain in a U.S. military prison until he is delivered to Iraqi authorities on the day of his execution. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Iraqi government offices shut down ahead of an Islamic holiday this weekend, and there was confusion over when Saddam would be executed and whether President Jalal Talabani was required to approve such action.
Raed Juhi, a spokesman for the High Tribunal that convicted Saddam, said that with approval from Talabani, Saddam could be put to death within 30 days. Otherwise, the execution would be held after that period, he said.
But Hiwa Osman, a spokesman for Talabani, has said the execution might not need the president's signature.
International reaction to the denial of Saddam's appeal has been relatively muted.
Cardinal Renato Martino, Pope Benedict XVI's top prelate for justice issues and a former Vatican envoy to the U.N., condemned the death sentence in a newspaper interview published Thursday, saying capital punishment goes against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
After Saddam's death sentence was handed down last month, Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, urged Iraq to ensure a fair appeals process and to refrain from executing Saddam even if the sentence is upheld.
Some international legal observers and human rights groups have also called Saddam's trial unfair because of alleged interference by the Shiite-dominated government.
But State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said Thursday the Bush administration believes the trial was held in accordance with international and Iraqi laws.
"(The Iraqis) carried out their work in a transparent and open manner and they arrived at a verdict based on the facts in the case," Casey said.
In Dujail, home to the 148 victims of the 1982 killings, townspeople were divided over Saddam's execution.
"America is using him to increase sedition among Iraqis, but we are thinking only of how Iraq can get rid of its problems and achieve security," said Hussein Abases, a Shiite farmer.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged there was concern about a possible surge of violence after the execution. "I'm sure the Iraqi government is thinking through that and working with the coalition in terms of the impact that could have," he said in Washington.
At least 30 Iraqis died Thursday in bombings and shootings, including a suicide bombing in a crowd of people waiting to buy kerosene near a stadium in Baghdad that killed 10, according to police. Police also said 42 bodies of tortured men were found dumped in the Iraqi capital Thursday.
The U.S. military in Iraq announced five more American troop deaths: four soldiers hit by roadside bombs on patrol and a Marine killed in combat in volatile western Iraq. The Department of Defense also identified three more American servicemen who died in Iraq this week that hadn't been previously reported, according to an AP analysis.
The figures raised the U.S. troop deaths this month to 103, second only to the 105 service members who died in October. At least 2,991 members of the U.S. military have been killed since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an AP count.
The al-Qaida in Iraq cell leader allegedly responsible for the deaths of two of the servicemen was arrested Tuesday in a raid south of Baghdad, the military said. Al-Qaida in Iraq had claimed it killed the two U.S. soldiers found dead in June - Pfc. Kristian Menchaca of Houston and Pfc. Thomas Tucker of Madras, Ore. Their bodies were recovered after a search by 8,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, dubbed Operation Fallen Eagle.