BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq will bring top figures of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime to court next week for the first time since they appeared before a judge five months ago, and formal indictments could be issued next month. Many have been in custody for more than a year and have not met with lawyers, prompting Saddam's attorneys to cry foul.
The regime figures face charges for crimes allegedly committed during the 35-year Baath Party dictatorship, including war crimes, mass killings and the suppression of the 1991 Shiite rebellion. Saddam, who was arrested a year ago Monday, will not be among those to appear in court next week, The Associated Press has learned.
Tuesday's surprise announcement by Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi came only days after government leaders said the Special Tribunal was not yet prepared to begin the trials. Iraqi leaders, working with U.S. officials, need to train judges and prosecutors and sort through stacks of evidence, all under the pressure of a deadly insurgency that has attacked at will.
In the latest violence, insurgents killed seven people Tuesday in the second suicide bombing in two days outside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. The military also announced that two U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based in western Iraq died in combat in Baghdad province Monday, bringing the number of Marines killed to 10 in three days.
To help secure the country, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced in Baghdad that the U.S. military will have a record-high 150,000 troops in Iraq through the Jan. 30 elections and "a little bit after."
The government had said in early December that troop levels would be raised from 138,000 to 150,000 to help secure next month's vote, which many Iraqis fear could be targeted by militants opposed to the occupation and bent on derailing the political process.
Asked when exactly the troops would pull out, Myers responded: "That will be determined by events on the ground."
Allawi's government has been under pressure recently to show progress on the trials. His announcement came a day after the U.S. military acknowledged that eight of Saddam's 11 top lieutenants went on hunger strike over the weekend to demand jail visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The officials were eating again by Monday, the military said.
The prime minister also may have an eye toward Iraq's Jan. 30 elections. Allawi officially confirmed he would join the race when his office released a terse statement saying he would unveil his list of candidates for the vote today.
It was not immediately known if next week's court hearings would be open to reporters. But officials have said the trials will be as transparent as possible.
"I can now tell you clearly and precisely that, God willing, next week the trials of the symbols of the former regime will start, one by one, so that justice can take its path in Iraq," Allawi told the interim National Council, without saying who would be tried.
He appeared to be referring to investigative hearings, which come ahead of the trials.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the tribunal was still preparing the cases and compiling evidence.
"There is a court process that involves investigative judges and a hearing for some of the former regime officials that is under preparation that we would expect to be held next week," Boucher said. "At that point, the accused and their attorneys do go to court, although that's not the actual trial."
A Western official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that the hearings next week would be preliminary. The official said among the first of those to appear next week would likely be Saddam's notorious right-hand man, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali." The official suggested indictments could follow soon after.
The hearings will still be important since they would be the first since Saddam and his top lieutenants appeared before the special tribunal in July, when a judge read preliminary charges including war crimes, mass killings and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.
Lawyers for the defendants complained they had not had time to consult with their clients, and said that any proceedings under such conditions would be seen as political show trials.
Saddam's Jordan-based lawyers say they have not even seen the former dictator.
"The Iraqi court will be in violation of the basic rights of the defendants, which is to have access to legal counsel while being interrogated and indicted," Ziad al-Khasawneh said.
Allawi also announced the arrest of a cousin of Saddam's, Izzi-Din Mohammed Hassan al-Majid, who fled Iraq in 1995 and was granted indefinite leave to remain in Britain in 2000. He was arrested in Fallujah and will be put on trial as soon as possible, Allawi said.
The car bomb that hit Tuesday sent a huge plume of smoke into the air, and occurred in nearly the same place as one on Monday that killed 13 people and wounded 15. The location is near the Harthiyah gate on the western edge of the Green Zone, which has been repeatedly targeted by bombings and mortar and missile attacks since it became the headquarters of the occupation authorities in May 2003.
Little was known about the deaths of the two Marines. The announcement came after the military said seven other Marines died in action Sunday in Anbar, a vast province west of Baghdad including the battleground cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, and a 10th was killed Saturday.
The deaths brought to nearly 1,300 the number of American troops killed in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003.
In other developments Tuesday:
-- Gunmen killed a provincial council member in the northern city of Mosul, a health official said. Dr. Sinan Salem Salo was killed in western Mosul's Shefa neighborhood while leaving work at the Jumhouri Hospital where he heads the emergency unit, provincial Health Ministry official Dr. Rabie Yassin said.
-- The U.S. military discovered eight more bodies in Mosul, bringing the number of bodies found there since Nov. 10 to more than 150. Initially peaceful after the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, Mosul has become a worrisome trouble spot since the American and Iraqi militaries invaded the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in November.
-- Allawi said that on Monday, police killed an aide to Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi named Hassan Ibrahim Farhan al-Zaid. Allawi described the man as a "terror leader."
Associated Press reporters Slobodan Lekic, Paul Garwood and Mariam Fam in Baghdad contributed to this story.