Judges interrogate two top Saddam deputies in first phase of trials; insurgents attack election offices

Saturday, December 18th 2004, 11:31 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Iraqi judges interrogated the notorious general known as ``Chemical Ali'' and Saddam's former defense minister Saturday, opening the first phase in trials for the ousted dictator's top deputies. Insurgents, meanwhile, attacked election offices and wounded four American contractors with a roadside bomb.

Ali Hassan al-Majid _ who earned his nickname for his alleged use of chemical weapons against Kurds and others _ appeared haggard in a video released after the interrogation, from which the press was barred. He leaned on a walking stick before sitting in front of a judge behind a desk.

Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Saddam's last defense chief, straed blankly at the ground as police officers stood to either side of him holding his arms.

The two were the the first to go before an investigative hearing from among the 11 jailed top figures who, along with Saddam, are facing trial for crimes during the regime's three decades in power.

Both were questioned by a panel of investigative judges in a hearing attended by their lawyers, said Raad al-Juhyi, the head of the panel.

The videos were the first images of the men since they were initially arraigned in July along with Saddam and the other detainees. Both wore gray-colored suits and white shirts without ties and arrived at the tribunal flanked by blue uniformed police.

Al-Juhyi said the defendants will face questioning over Saddam's Anfal campaign, a depopulation scheme that killed and expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds from northern Iraq, including the 1988 Halabja chemical weapons attacks that al-Majid has been accused of ordering.

The judges will also investigate the role of the detainees in the bloody quelling of a 1991 Shiite uprising following the U.S.-led Gulf War to force occupying Iraqi forces out of neighboring Kuwait, plus the illegal imprisonment and executions of political opponents.

``We should make a distinction between the trial and the investigation,'' al-Juhyi said. ``We are talking about the investigation. We're in the investigation phase.''

The judge said there would be no rush in concluding the hearing and trial process against Saddam and his senior aides. Hastiness is the plague of trials,'' al-Juhyi said.

Iraqi deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, told Al-Arabiya TV that Ahmad was being quizzed primarily to assist in tribunal proceedings against al-Majid.

``The former defense minister is being interrogated within the framework of focusing on the case of Ali Hassan al-Majid, who is accused of many crimes against the Iraqi people,'' Saleh said, adding that any future criminal trial would be public and ``maybe open to journalists.''

Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Tuesday that detained leaders of Saddam's toppled regime would start appearing before court in the coming week _ pressing ahead with the trials ahead of crucial national elections set for Jan. 30.

Many Iraqis _ particularly among the Shiite majority _ have been eager to see the prosecution of the ousted regime begin. The trials and elections come amid persistent violence by insurgents, including suspected former Saddam followers, that has raised concern over the success of the vote.

Mortars fired by insurgents landed near a center for Iraqis to register to vote in the town of Dujail, 50 miles north of the capital, on Saturday, killing one civilian and wounding eight others, said Master Sgt. Robert Powell, of the Tikrit-based U.S. 1st Infantry Division.

Gunmen opened fire in another election center in Riyadh, a town southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, on Friday evening, Kirkuk police said.

Iraq's insurgency appears to be consolidating in northern Iraq following intensive U.S.-led military operations in central and western Iraq aimed at uprooting militants, comprising mainly Islamic extremists and loyalists of the deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Gunmen killed two men, apparently Iraqis, in execution-style slayings in the northern town of Beiji, police Capt. Hakim Ali said Saturday. The men's bodies were found, one with his hands tied behind his back.

Also near Beiji, a roadside bomb exploded, wounding four American contractors employed by Florida-based Cochise Security Inc to dispose of Saddam-era munitions in the area. Two of the wounded were hospitalized. Three Cochise employees were killed in two separate April attacks in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad.

Ahmad, the forner defense chief, surrendered to U.S. forces in September 2003 at a coalition military base in Mosul, but was not considered to be a war crimes suspect and many had expected that he would be freed after being questioned.

Officials have not said when Saddam will appear before the investigative panel for questioning. Allawi said the defendants could be arraigned in January _ just ahead of the elections.

Putting former Baath regime leaders on trial is seen as a crucial step in Iraq's post-Saddam reconstruction, but human rights groups and lawyers for the defendants have raised concerns over the access of legal representatives to the detainees.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi militant group calling itself the ``Jihad Brigades'' claimed responsibility in a video posted on a Web site Saturday for the slaying of two American contractors on Dec. 8. Joseph Wemple, a builder from Orlando, Fla., and his boss, Dale Stoffel, vice president for international development for CLI USA, died in the ambush outside Baghdad. CLI USA is a Pennsylvania-based engineering-construction contractor.

``A group of Jihad Brigades' fighters set a trap on the Taji Camp road for members of the Pentagon and the American intelligence agency, the CIA, and those who had close ties with the American President Bush,'' a masked man said, sitting at a table and reading from a statement. A masked, armed man stood behind him.

``Their vehicles were attacked, and we confiscated all their weapons and possessions, including Iraqi antiquities and classified documents,'' the masked man said. The video showed images of passports and other documents in the two men's names. The claim could not be verified.