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De-Baathification of special tribunal may imperil Saddam's trial

BAGHDAD, Iraq—An expected purge this week of Iraqi judges and prosecutors threatens to derail the much-anticipated trial of Saddam Hussein.

Despite pleas from Iraq's president and concerns that the purge could disrupt the prosecution of Saddam, the committee investigating Iraqi officials for membership in Saddam's Baath Party plans to demand the removal of 19 alleged Baathists serving on the special tribunal set up to try the despot, according to a top official in Iraq's de-Baathification committee.

The list of 19 judges and prosecutors includes Raed Juhi, a judge who has headed up much of the investigation against Saddam and has appeared at his arraignment in July last year, said Ali al-Lami, the executive director of the nation's de-Baathification committee.

The tribunal's bylaws forbid any past Baath Party member from being on the tribunal. The Shiite-dominated national assembly on Monday rejected a measure that would have exempted the bottom three ranks of the Baath Party from the purge.

The purge could cause serious embarrassment for the U.S.-organized effort to prosecute Saddam and his administration for crimes against humanity. It also points to the complex set of forces within the Iraqi government, driven by sectarian concerns and individuals' quests for power, that continue to create political instability.

A spokesman for the American Embassy in Baghdad declined to comment.

Juhi is the head investigative judge for the only case to be referred for trial against Saddam so far—the 1982 massacre of dozens of Shiite villagers in the town of Dujail after a failed assassination attempt against the dictator.

If Juhi and the others are removed, it's unclear how the tribunal would proceed. Of the 19 to be named by the de-Baathification committee, 13 are judges, al-Lami said. The special tribunal has 65 judges in all.

Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, said last Thursday that he would intervene if al-Lami pushed forward.

Reached by phone, Juhi said he wasn't concerned.

"We are an independent committee and there is no group with authority over us," Juhi said.

Baath Party members, led by Saddam, systematically oppressed, tortured and killed Shiites, especially clerics, for decades. National elections in January installed a government dominated by Shiite clerics that's been more aggressive in pursuing Baathists than its predecessor.

Asked about the possible effects on the Saddam trial of removing one of the chief judges, al-Lami, a Shiite who was imprisoned and tortured by Saddam's administration, shrugged his shoulders and said that the rules are the rules.

Suspicion is widespread that al-Lami is acting at on the political agenda of Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, who oversees the de-Baathification committee. Chalabi's nephew, Salem, was initially in charge of the special tribunal but resigned after a judge in Iraq's central criminal court signed an arrest warrant last year charging him with murder. The warrant was later rescinded.

After being spurned by the American administration amid charges that his staff funneled U.S. intelligence secrets to Iran, Ahmad Chalabi relaunched his political career as a populist toward the end of last year. As part of that strategy, he aligned with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Juhi had earlier signed an arrest warrant against al-Sadr for the 2003 murder of Abdel Majid al-Khoei, a moderate Shiite cleric. The American military announced the warrant in April 2004, saying al-Sadr was an outlaw who would be killed or captured.

The declaration precipitated the first al-Sadr uprising that month. In the aftermath of the second uprising, in August 2004, the Iraqi government agreed to suspend the warrant.

Al-Lami is an open political supporter of Chalabi and al-Sadr.

"Ahmad Chalabi will be the head of the next Iraqi government," he said recently in his office. He also extolled the virtues of al-Sadr, saying he wished al-Sadr's militia was still openly patrolling his street in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood.

A top Chalabi aide, Entifadh Qanbar, said Chalabi hasn't asked al-Lami to go after Juhi.

"We are not targeting the (Saddam tribunal) process," Qanbar said. "However, the law must be upheld. ... This is the job of the de-Baathification committee."

So far, the de-Baathification committee has had nine administrative members of the tribunal removed for ties to the Baath Party, including the heads of security and finance.

Al-Lami said he planned to send the new list to the head of the tribunal and to the leadership of Iraq's national assembly.

If the 19, including Juhi, aren't removed from their positions, al-Lami said, the de-Baathification committee will press charges against those standing in its way.

Juhi "was an active member in the Baath Party and I have documents showing it," al-Lami said. "We will issue the list."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.