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U.S. official: Saddam trial won't start this year

Allawi using tribunal for political purposes, ex-chairman says

From Ayman Mohyeldin

Saddam Hussein is shown during a court appearance in July.
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Saddam Hussein

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The war crimes trial of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein won't begin any time soon because deteriorating security is hampering information-gathering in the case, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

"The likelihood of any trial in the near future is remote" said the official, speaking to reporters at a background briefing. He said it was only a possibility that the trial would get under way next year.

It is also unlikely that any of regime's top 11 officials would face trial in front of the Iraqi Special Tribunal before the end of this year, the official said.

Those officials include former deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who often defended the regime internationally, and Ali Hassan al-Majid, dubbed "Chemical Ali" for his alleged role in the use of chemical weapons on Iraqi civilians. Two of Saddam's half-brothers are also in the group, along with his vice president, defense minister and presidential secretary.

In addition, the official raised serious doubts about recent remarks by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that the court session could start in the autumn.

"No pressure from Ayad Allawi or any other corridor has been put on the tribunal to meet any deadline" the official said.

Difficulties of building cases

A team of 21 judges has the complex and dangerous job of building cases against Saddam and his aides, the official said.

The six-month period allotted to complete the investigation is set to expire in December, but it can be extended. After charges are filed, evidence will be passed to a five-judge panel.

The official said escalating violence and risks have limited the access of the investigative teams to exhumation sites, sites of mass graves and witnesses, and the security of the investigators is a daily concern.

A key part of the probe is building a "command-responsibility case," and that has faced complications.

A command-responsibility case requires a link between the chain of command for the military and the regime, and the people who carried out orders that resulted in crimes.

The official said the disappearance of documents, witnesses and evidence, and the deterioration of sites of criminal interest, have made the process more difficult.

The official said that after the fall of Saddam's regime, the families of victims rushed to suspected sites of mass graves in attempts to retrieve the bodies of loved one who had disappeared.

In the process, evidence was destroyed.

Tribunal shakeup

The official also disclosed that Salem Chalabi is no longer the director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. That post is now held by Amer Bakis.

Salem Chalabi was charged in connection with the killing earlier this year of Haitham Fadhil, a Finance Ministry official, on the same day his uncle, Ahmed Chalabi, was charged with counterfeiting.

Ahmed Chalabi had been a key U.S. ally leading up to the war in Iraq but has recently fallen out of favor with Washington.

Salem Chalabi has charged that the Iraqi interim government "is attempting to take control of the Iraqi Special Tribunal for political purposes" and were using "false murder charges" as an excuse.

He also said the charges against him have been dropped.

He said the decision to remove him from the tribunal post was "illegitimate" and illegal. He said the tribunal is being politicized and the government has interfered with the tribunal for political purposes.

"My insistence on the independence of the tribunal was also proving inconvenient to the secret policy of the interim government to grant amnesty to or otherwise work out deals with senior Baathists inside and outside Iraq," he said. "Several of these Baathists are concerned about their possible indictment by the tribunal."

He said Bakri is from Allawi's political movement and "has stated to a number of staff that he will be taking instructions directly from the prime minister."

Chalabi said the interim government wants to "control the timing of the judicial process in order to serve its own political interests" and said he is worried that the defendants won't have proper legal protections.

"The caretaker government wants to begin the trials, and possibly even conclude them, before the Iraqi elections scheduled for late January because they believe this will help their popularity in the country," he said.

In other developments:

  • No Iraqi lawyers of record have contacted the tribunal about representing former regime members. Attempts to obtain the services of specific lawyers requested by the regime members have failed because the lawyers have either refused to represent former regime officials or they have left the country.
  • The Baghdad Clock Tower, the site previously expected to house the trial, has been deemed unsafe because it can't withstand mortar and small-arms fire. The clock tower, a former museum, is the site where U.S. officials announced and introduced the new interim Cabinet. A new court building is being built at an undisclosed location.
  • In addition to the current 35 U.S. advisers working with the tribunal, another 40 are expected to arrive in the coming weeks from the United States and other countries.
  • CNN's Kevin Flower contributed to this report.

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