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Iraq leader says foreign fighters who joined ISIS could face death penalty

As debate continues over how Western countries should deal with citizens who have gone abroad to join ISIS, Iraqi President Barham Salih says foreigners tried in Iraq for fighting with the militant group could be handed death sentences.

Comments come amid debates on how Western nations should deal with citizens who joined militant group

U.S.-backed forces in Syria handed Iraqi authorities some 280 Iraqi and foreign suspected ISIS members last month, Iraq's military said. More handovers are expected under an agreement to transfer some 500 detainees held by U.S.-backed forces in Syria to Iraqi authorities. (Associated Press)

As debate continues over how Western countries should deal with citizens who have gone abroad to join ISIS, Iraqi President Barham Salih says foreigners tried in Iraq for fighting with the militant group could be handed death sentences.

The ISIS fighters "will be tried in accordance to Iraqi law and may be sentenced to death if found guilty" of killing Iraqis, Salih was quoted as saying in an interview published by Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National.

U.S.-backed forces in Syria handed over some 280 Iraqi and foreign suspected ISIS members last month, Iraq's military said. More are expected under an agreement to transfer some 500 detainees held by U.S.-backed forces in Syria.

Salih's remarks were the first public comments confirming that foreign ISIS fighters could face execution in Iraq.

"There are certain cases in which some of these foreign fighters have been implicated in cases of terrorism on Iraqi  soil or against Iraqi citizens. Here Iraqi law will take precedence," he said. 

'Too much to ask of Iraq'

Iraq has said it will either help repatriate non-Iraqi ISIS detainees to their home countries, or prosecute those suspected of having committed crimes against Iraq and Iraqis.

Under Iraqi law, ISIS members convicted of attacking Iraqis could face the death penalty.

But the government has also said that it does not expect to have to deal with all ISIS fighters transferred from Syria.

Meanwhile, Western countries remain divided in their approach to handling citizens who joined the group. The U.K. has moved to strip citizenship from British teen Shamima Begum who joined the group at 15 with two other school girls. U.S. authorities have argued that Hoda Muthana, an American-born woman, is not in fact a citizen.

Several countries are already working quietly to repatriate minors on a case-by-case basis. Of more than 5,000 Europeans — most from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium — who went to fight in Syria and Iraq, some 1,500 have returned, according to police agency Europol.  

'Waiting for the right time to resurge'

For its part, Canada's Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has said he won't put Canadian diplomats at risk in Syria to repatriate ISIS fighters.

His office has refused to confirm whether it is preparing for the return of any Canadian citizens detained in the conflict. In a statement to CBC News, Goodale's office said Canada has "no legal obligation to facilitate their return."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, has said operations are underway in eastern Syria to announce the end of ISIS there.

Watch Should Ottawa repatriate Canadian ISIS members:

Jessica Davis and Amarnath Amarasingam on the logistics of the U.S. call for countries to repatriate foreign fighters and prosecute them at home. 11:34

But the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, said on Thursday the reduction of Islamic State's territorial footprint was a "monumental military accomplishment," but the fight was "far from over."

"What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization," he told a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives armed services committee.

He said the group has made a "calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families" and its members are "going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge."

Votel, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, also said he is under no pressure to withdraw forces from Syria by any specific date, after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the drawdown of most U.S. troops from Syria.