Baathist purge may stall Hussein trial

Last week, nine officials in the special tribunal were removed. Half of the judges are under review.

More than a year and a half after US troops pulled Saddam Hussein out of his spider hole, Iraqis are still wondering what will become of him.

US officials promised that Saddam's trial before a national tribunal, on charges running from aggression against neighbors to genocide, would usher in a new era of justice and rule of law in Iraq.

Earlier this month, the Iraqi Special Tribunal (IST) - the roughly 50-judge court set up under US guidance to try former regime officials - looked primed to kick off its formal proceedings against the ousted dictator, along with several of his highest-ranking associates.

But now the IST appears to be coming apart at the seams, amid a flurry of recriminations among judges and court administrators over past links with the Baath Party, the institution at the center of Saddam's regime.

With nine administrative officials forced out last week and nearly half of the judges still under threat of an anti-Baathist purge, the prospects for a smooth, internationally credible judicial process look bleak.

Problems with the high-profile tribunal could also bode ill for the broader development of the Iraqi justice system, frustrated US officials said.

On July 10, chief IST prosecutor Raid Juhi announced that Saddam would be referred for trial "within a few days" in the relatively minor Dujayl case, involving atrocities against a Shiite town in the early 1980s. Court officials promised that other cases, such as the regime's early 1990s "Anfal campaign" against Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, would also be ready for trial soon.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other figures in the Shiite-led government had been pushing the IST to get trials under way, as the Iraqi people were growing impatient.

Despite its special nature, the IST follows Iraqi law, and could therefore sentence Saddam and his associates to death by hanging.

The IST has attracted controversy ever since its formation in December 2003 - the same month, coincidentally, as Saddam's capture. Human rights groups questioned the legality of a court that was formed under US military occupation, prompting US officials to retort that the Iraqi judiciary "deserves the support of the international community."

But even before the announcement of upcoming trials, Mr. Juhi met informally with members of Iraq's parliament to discuss possible amendments to the IST's founding statute in order to help weed out Baathists from the court.

Zakia Hakki, a Kurdish legal expert who helped set up the IST, cited concerns that several Baathists may have slipped through initial screening by US officials, despite the statute's prohibition on former Baathists in the court.

The problem, a US official says, is that practically every judge who served in the Iraqi judicial system under Hussein was a member of the Baath Party. "You had to be, at least nominally," he says.

Last week, anti-Baath unease became a purge. Khaled al-Shammi, an official on the government's deBaathification board, announced a cabinet decision to fire IST director Radhi Ammar and eight other officials "because of links with the Baath Party."

More surprisingly, Mr. Shammi said that 19 of the IST's judges and prosecutors, including Juhi, were also under investigation for previous Baathist membership.

IST security manager Mohamed al-Bandar, one of the officials who lost his job, accused Shammi of wanting to "purge all of Iraq." "The IST is independent, and Shammi's report is aimed at demolishing the edifice of justice represented by the IST and its staff," Mr. Bandar told reporters. He referred to malicious sources attacking "the aspirations of Iraqis of all ethnicities who are seeking a symbol of justice to obtain their rights from Saddam and his regime."

The power behind the purges is reported to be Deputy Prime Minster Ahmed Chalabi, whose nephew Salem Chalabi was the IST's original director, before the family's fallout with the US.

The US official also expresses concern about Mr. Chalabi's "obsession with de-Baathifacation." The Americans were stricter about judges who used to work with anti-Saddam opposition group, according to Ms. Hakki, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

US advisers asked her not to serve as a judge, she says, because they "didn't want any point of weakness."

While the de-Baathifiers turned up the heat, Iraq's regular justice system is moving ahead with its first death sentences since the end of Saddam's regime.

In May, amid a stepped up suicide bombing campaign, Iraqi criminal courts passed death sentences on several Iraqis convicted of manufacturing bombs.

Mohamed Khalaf al-Jumayli, chief prosecutor at the Central Criminal Court, confirmed that the men have exhausted all of their appeals in the court system. All that remains is for President Jalal Talabani to sign their death warrants. Mr. Talabani, who has publicly opposed the death penalty, is expected to delegate the job to a deputy rather than block the court's decision.

[Editor's note: The original subheadline of this article misstated claims about the Iraqi Special Tribunal.]

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