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'Chemical Ali' faces questions at hearing

Ali Hassan al-Majid -- also known as "Chemical Ali" -- appears at an investigative hearing Saturday.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Captured former Iraqi official Ali Hassan al-Majid -- also known as "Chemical Ali" -- and another jailed member of Saddam Hussein's regime were interrogated in court Saturday before a tribunal of investigative judges.

Iraqi officials have said al-Majid will be among the first officials from the Saddam era to be tried in war crime proceedings. But tribunal leader Raad al-Juhyi said the hearing was not part of the upcoming trials.

The panel of judges also questioned Saddam's former defense minister, Sultan Hashem Ahmed, al-Juhyi said. Attorneys for the two men were present, the panel head said, giving no details of what was said in the hearing.

The hearing was closed to the media.

Saddam and 11 high-profile members of his ousted regime face war crime allegations, and Iraqi officials have said al-Majid's trial would begin before the end of December.

At one point, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had said trials would begin next week.

Al-Majid, who also is Saddam's cousin, allegedly orchestrated the 1988 chemical weapons attack on Iraqi Kurds.

Most accounts, including those of international humanitarian organizations, say more than 5,000 Kurds were killed in the attack.

Al-Majid was taken into U.S. custody in 2003.

Pictures from the court tribunal showed al-Majid handcuffed and dressed in a jacket and shirt with no tie. He walked with a cane.

Interim Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said the investigation of ex-defense minister Ahmed is aimed largely at gathering information for al-Majid's trial.

Much is riding on the first trial -- it could help to determine whether the nation's new judicial system has legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis, Americans and the world. It also will help set a tone and pattern for future cases, leading up to Saddam's trial.

Many international observers have said they are concerned that Iraq's judicial system, established as part of the interim government, may not be prepared to hold trials of such magnitude.

Saleh acknowledged the system is not up to where it should be, but he said there is substantial evidence against the top members of the former regime.

Al-Majid was the king of spades in the deck of cards issued by the U.S. military and No. 5 on the American list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis.

He was a general, presidential adviser, a member of Saddam's inner circle, commander of the Baath Party Regional Command, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council and head of the Central Workers Bureau.

He coordinated the resistance in southern Iraq during the war, according to the U.S.-led coalition, and was the de facto governor of Kuwait after Iraq invaded that country in 1990.

In April 2003, coalition officials initially suspected al-Majid was killed in a U.S.-led airstrike on his house, but they later retracted the claim. He then was thought to have been in hiding in northern Iraq, possibly in Tikrit, home of his clan.

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