U.S. Official Says Early Trials of Hussein and Others Are Unlikely, Despite Allawi's Demand.

A senior American official helping to prepare for the trials of Saddam Hussein and other top officials of the former government said Friday that "the likelihood of trials in the near future is remote," despite a demand by Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, that they begin by November.

The official gave no estimate of when the trials would start, beyond saying it would depend on Iraqi judges' decisions on how wide ranging each case should be.

The official said Iraqis and Americans working for the Iraqi Special Tribunal, established by the American occupation authority this year to conduct the trials, were working methodically through a mass of evidence against Mr. Hussein and 11 other "high value" detainees who have been designated as the first to face trial. The key in each case, he said, was in establishing "command responsibility" for the widespread killing that occurred under Mr. Hussein's rule, and that was a "very complex" issue. "These cases proceed at their own pace," he said.

Asked to comment on Dr. Allawi's call for the trials to begin by November, made in an interview with The New York Times before Dr. Allawi departed for his visit to the United States this week, the American official replied, "He certainly didn't consult me first." Referring to years of experience working with the war crimes tribunal established in The Hague to try defendants from the wars in the former Yugoslavia, he added, "I'm just giving you my best estimate, having worked these cases for many years."

"You're talking about a 25-year period when you have numerous large crime bases, and investigation has to take place at all these bases," the official added. By the phrase "crime bases," he said, he was referring to events involving killing on a large scale that occurred during Mr. Hussein's rule from 1979 to 2003. Rather than organizing the tribunal's work around investigations of the individual crimes of accused Iraqi leaders, he said, the investigations were focusing on those events, and seeking to trace the role of Mr. Hussein and his associates in each of them.

The official made his remarks during a briefing at the American-run press center in the main government compound in Baghdad. An American Embassy official who set the ground rules for the briefing said the official could not be identified.

Because of recent violence aimed at government officials and at Americans working in civilian roles here, security has been extremely tight, especially for officials involved in the prosecution of Mr. Hussein and his top associates. When they venture out of the Baghdad compound as part of their investigations, they do so in heavily protected convoys or on American military helicopters.

The joint responsibility that grew out of Iraq's resumption of formal sovereignty 12 weeks ago extends to the tribunal, where 35 American lawyers and investigators from a unit known as the Regime Crimes Liaison Office, soon to rise to 50, work alongside dozens of Iraqi judges and investigators in preparing the trials.

When pressed by reporters, the American official refused to comment on recent developments at the tribunal involving the removal of at least two major Iraqi figures from positions of authority in a behind-the-scenes struggle that has drawn the personal involvement of Dr. Allawi. One of the men dismissed, Salem Chalabi, formerly the tribunal's chief administrator, has said he was forced out by Dr. Allawi after only five months of a three-year term so that the interim government could take "political control" of the tribunal and stage accelerated trials of Mr. Hussein and others for political advantage ahead of elections that are scheduled in January.

A senior judge appointed to be the tribunal's president was also dismissed this month, in a personal letter from Dr. Allawi maintaining that his appointment was illegal; the judge had wide powers over the trials, including choosing the five-judge panels that will hear the cases,

The American official said the ousted judge, Naim al-Egaili, had been replaced in recent days by another judge, whom he identified as Jamal Muhammad Mustafa. But the American official refused to discuss the political ramifications. The official went on to say the day-to-day work of the tribunal, investigating the crimes of the ousted government, had not been affected. "No one in any quarter has pressured us to do anything," he said. "I see these things in the press, but that's just the fact. Nothing." In commenting on the timing of the trials, the official said one main obstacle had been the failure of any Iraqi lawyers to volunteer as defense lawyers. Speaking of Mr. Hussein, he added: "He can have access to any lawyer he wants. But the problem from the get-go is that no Iraqi lawyer of record has come forward to represent him."

At a hearing on July 1, most of Mr. Hussein's associates asked for non-Iraqi lawyers, but the American official said none had come forward, either. In any case, he said, Iraqi law stipulates that a foreign lawyer can act here only if the defense case is led by an Iraqi. The official said that if no Iraqi lawyers came forward, the tribunal would ask the Iraqi Bar Association to nominate counsel.

Another problem, the official said, has been the insurgency across Iraq and the obstacle that has posed to on-site pursuit of evidence, especially at more than 260 mass grave sites.

[Source: By John Burns, The New York Times, 25Sep04]

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