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Iraq P.M.: War Crimes Trials Set

War crimes trials against the top figures in Saddam Hussein's ousted regime will begin next week, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Tuesday. He didn't say whether the former dictator would be among them.

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. Saddam's Jordan-based lawyers say they have not seen the former dictator, arrested a year ago Monday, and said holding trials so soon would be illegal.

"The Iraqi court will be in violation of the basic rights of the defendants, which is to have access to legal counsel while being interrogated and indicted," Ziad al-Khasawneh said.

Officials had given conflicting accounts about when the trials before the Iraqi Special Tribunal would begin. They have also suggested that Saddam would not be tried first.

"I can now tell you clearly and precisely that, God willing, next week the trials of the symbols of the former regime will start, one by one so that justice can take its path in Iraq," Allawi told the interim National Council, without saying who would be tried.

Allawi had previously said they would take place in October or November, while others have said they would begin no earlier than 2006. An Allawi spokesman later said he had no information about who would be tried first and said more details would be released Wednesday.

Iraq's human rights minister, Bekhtiar Amin, said from Geneva that work was under way to bring some of Saddam's lieutenants to trial before him.

"I don't know for sure when Saddam Hussein in particular will be tried, but the trial is scheduled to start sometime next year, the first quarter of next year," Amin said. "I doubt that Saddam will be the first one to be tried, there are others whom they will start with and the work is ongoing right now."

These trials are likely to be watched very closely by Iraqis, reports CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick in Baghdad, 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," McCormick said.

Allawi also announced the arrest of a cousin of Saddam's, Izzi-Din Mohammed Hassan al-Majid. Al-Majid, who fled Iraq in 1995 and was granted indefinite leave to remain in Britain in 2000, was arrested in Fallujah and will be put on trial as soon as possible, Allawi said.

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.

A U.S. official in Iraq had said Monday that one detainee had met a lawyer Sunday, the first time such an announcement had been made. Saddam's Jordanian-based lawyer, al-Khasawneh, said the trials wouldn't be able to take place even next year because there was so much work to be done.

"I think that Mr. Allawi is dreaming," he said. "He cannot make such a bold announcement before consulting with his boss — President Bush."

Younadem Kana, a member of the interim National Council, said Monday the body wants a speedy trial for Saddam and his lieutenants because the detainees are giving hope to insurgents in Iraq.

"Punishing them would be a deterrent," he said.

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.

American officials with the Justice Department's Regime Crimes Liaison Office are advising the Iraqi Special Tribunal on the process. The Americans paid the tribunal's budget of $75 million for 2004-05.

U.S. Embassy officials said they had no prior information on Allawi's statement and learned of his plan only through media reports. The Bush administration has repeatedly said the trials must be legitimate and could take some time.

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.

Allawi also said a mass grave believed to hold about 500 bodies was found near the city of Sulaimaniyah, 162 miles northeast of Baghdad. It appeared he was referring to grave site reported last week by an official in the region, who had initially announced a mass grave had been found possibly containing 500 bodies; when pressed later, he said two skeletons had been found so far.

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.