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Chemical Ali 1st Test For Courts?

Gen. David H. Petraeus. (AP Photo)
AP
The trial of Saddam Hussein's henchman known as Chemical Ali could be the first test of the new Iraqi justice system, reports CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick.

Iraq's defense minister, Hazem al-Shalan, says the proceedings against him could begin as early as next week, and certainly before the elections slated for January 30.

Ali Hassan al-Majid was one of Saddam Hussein's most feared deputies. Among the charges he'll likely face: gassing up to 5,000 Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1980s.

Majid is one of several former regime officials who will stand trial. He is accused of some of the worst crimes.

The court appearance will be the first for any of the top figures of Saddam's ousted regime since they appeared before a judge five months ago.

Saddam, who was arrested a year ago Monday, will not be among those to appear in court next week, The Associated Press has learned.

The regime figures face charges for crimes allegedly committed during the 35-year Baath Party dictatorship, including war crimes, mass killings and the suppression of the 1991 Shiite rebellion.

A Western official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that the hearings next week would be preliminary. The official suggested indictments could follow soon after.

The government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has been under pressure recently to show progress on the trials. The trials were announced a day after the U.S. military acknowledged that eight of Saddam's 11 top lieutenants went on hunger strike over the weekend to demand jail visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The officials were eating again by Monday, the military said.

It was not immediately known if next week's court hearings would be open to reporters. But officials have said the trials will be as transparent as possible.

Many of Iraq's former Baath Party members have been in jail for more than a year, and few have been able to meet with counsel.

Officials had given conflicting accounts about when the trials before the Iraqi Special Tribunal would begin.

Allawi had previously said they would take place in October or November, while others have said they would begin no earlier than 2006.

These trials are likely to be watched very closely by Iraqis, but it isn't clear whether they'll be televised.

To do so might prove to Iraqis that a new justice system has been established here, but it might also further inflame the passions of those still loyal to Saddam Hussein and his former regime and that could lead to even more violence by insurgents, who have already been seeking to undermine this new government, reports McCormick.

Government leaders have said recently the Special Tribunal is not yet prepared to begin the trials. They need to train judges and prosecutors, and sort through stacks of evidence, all under the pressure of a deadly insurgency that has been able to strike at will.

"The prosecution team, the defense counsel, the investigative judges, the documents are not ready," National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told The Associated Press last week. "It will take time. If you want to get it right, it will take time."

But leaders have come under new pressure recently. On Monday, the U.S. military acknowledged that eight of Saddam's 11 top lieutenants went on hunger strikes over the weekend to demand visits in jail from the International Committee of the Red Cross, but they were eating again by Monday.

A lawyer for former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said they were protesting the legality of their trials and their detention.

Some Allawi critics have claimed he is politicizing the trials ahead of Jan. 30 elections. Salem Chalabi, the tribunal director, was ousted abruptly in September and accused Allawi of pushing for show trials to boost his popularity before the vote.

Saddam and his 11 top lieutenants have been held for months in an undisclosed location, believed to be near the Baghdad International Airport, west of the capital. They appeared before the Iraqi Special Tribunal in July to face preliminary charges from the former regime.

Saddam was presented with seven charges that included gassing thousands of Kurds in 1988, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of 1991 revolts by Kurds and Shiites, the murders of religious and political leaders and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.