Trial of Saddam to begin in two months

Monday, June 6, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein will go on trial within two months on charges of crimes against humanity, with prosecutors focusing on 12 "thoroughly documented" counts, including the gassing of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq, a spokesman for Iraq's prime minister said Sunday.

Saddam's trial could prove to be highly divisive in an already turbulent Iraq that shows signs of deepening sectarian divisions. Reflecting these tensions, the Shiite-led Iraqi government acknowledged Sunday that its forces may have targeted innocent Sunni Muslims in a drive to crush the insurgency in southwestern Baghdad and its suburbs.

Starting the court proceedings against Saddam in two months would overlap with the writing of the constitution.

"There should be no objection that a trial should take place within that time," said Laith Kuba, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. "It is the government's view that the trial of Saddam should take place as soon as possible."

Kuba said the attack with chemical weapons on the Kurdish town of Halabja was one of the charges, but did not elaborate on the other 11. An estimated 5,000 people were killed in Halabja and 10,000 others were hurt in the gassing on March 16, 1988.

In recent days, Sunni Muslim organizations have charged that many innocent Iraqis have been arrested in the drive to crush the insurgency and most were Sunnis, the minority that dominated the country during Saddam's rule and are believed to form the insurgency's backbone.

"There is an improvement in security and in the performance of the security forces, but members of the army and police do cause mistakes, which do happen," Kuba said.

There were also some claims that "soldiers took advantage and helped themselves to cash and other items. One doesn't rule it out. I think the army needs more disciplinary measures in these cases," Kuba said.

Regardless of the complaints and the acknowledged mistakes, the crackdown -- dubbed Operation Lighting -- entered its second week Sunday and appeared to have somewhat blunted insurgent attacks in the capital.

The charges of overzealous behavior by the military and police as they seek to roust the insurgents coincide with government efforts to include Sunni Arabs in the political process, and to get them involved in drafting Iraq's new constitution. Sunni approval is necessary for the charter's adoption in a national referendum. It is to be ready by mid-August and approved nationwide in an October vote.

"We should not forget the bigger picture, which is that the security forces have a duty to combat the cells that take out their anger and violence on the Iraqi people," Kuba said.

Although the government has not provided fresh figures on the number of Iraqis arrested so far, the Interior Ministry said last Thursday that 700 people had been detained. The U.S. military said Friday it had detained at least 200 more during a two-day sweep south of Baghdad in an area known as the Triangle of Death.

The worst mistake, already acknowledged by top government officials, occurred on the second day of Operation Lightning, when U.S. forces arrested and later released the leader of Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political party. Kuba said that at least 200 other people had been released so far.

Operation Lightning aimed in its first week to seal Baghdad's entry points to prevent access to the capital for car bombers. It also focused on areas of southern and western Baghdad -- which have predominantly Sunni Arab populations and are the capital's most violent districts.

"Our military has taken the offensive now, taking the fight to the insurgents. This operation really will ensure better security for the capital," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN's "Late Edition" during a visit to Washington.

Zebari also said Saddam's trial would have a positive "impact on the security situation" in Iraq, and should begin the "sooner the better."

Kuba, the prime minister's spokesman, said investigating judges believe Saddam will be convicted on 12 "thoroughly documented" charges, "The judges are confidant that he will be convicted of these charges," Kuba said.

A spokesman for Saddam's legal team, Issam Ghazawi, criticized Kuba's comments, saying the accusations should be made through the court and the attorneys should receive a copy of the indictment.

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