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Saddam trial may take a long time to prepare, official says

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The likelihood that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be tried anytime soon is "remote," a U.S. official said Friday, nearly one week after Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the trial could begin in October.

The U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the fragile security situation was contributing to the delay because the tribunal could not easily travel in Iraq to investigate Saddam's alleged crimes against his people. They could not visit the sites of mass graves or be guaranteed their personal security, the official said.

"Security has slowed tremendously the process," the official said.

The official said it was unlikely that Saddam's trial would start this year, and could not predict when any of the trials against the former Iraqi leadership could begin. The United States is holding 84 detainees; the Iraqi government has 12.

"These cases proceed at their own pace," the official said.

In his interview Sunday with ABC's "This Week," Allawi said: "Roughly speaking, I think October," when asked when Saddam's trial would begin.

He also suggested that some of Saddam's cohorts would appear before the tribunal before the former president.

Allawi said the clear case against Saddam made the trial easier to hold. "It's going to be a very transparent and very just trial. We are going to ensure that. But I don't think it's going to take a long time because the evidence against him is so much. Really, it's overwhelming. So we hope justice will be served," he said.

But the U.S. official said the large amount of evidence the tribunal must sift through would delay the process, not expedite it. The tribunal must decide the scope of their case and then build it, he said.

A group of investigative judges is building the case. When they complete their investigation, they will present it to a trial judge, who will decide whether Saddam should be presented with the charges.

Meanwhile, Salem Chalabi, who once led the special tribunal putting the trial together, said the prime minister was forcing the trial early for political reasons and said he worried the process would not be fair.

"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," Chalabi said in a statement released Thursday. "I am very concerned about this."

He said the interim government concocted murder charges against him to remove him from the tribunal.

Chalabi was charged in the murder of a Finance Ministry official in July, at the same time his uncle, Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, was charged with dealing in counterfeit Iraqi currency. At the time, both men were out of the country. Both said the charges were part of a vendetta against them by U.S. officials who once favored Ahmed Chalabi to succeed Saddam. The counterfeiting charges against Ahmed Chalabi reportedly have been dropped.

Salem Chalabi returned to face the charges earlier this month and was released on bail. He said he also was asked to leave the tribunal.

The U.S. official said he has never heard from Allawi and does not believe the prime minister has placed any pressure on the panel.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Saddam Hussein

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on KRT Direct (from KRT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Saddam Hussein