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Saddam Honchos Face Court

In this image released by the Iraqi Special Tribunal, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as 'Chemical Ali' sits prior to his preliminary investigative hearing at an undisclosed courtroom in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday Dec. 18, 2004. An Iraqi judge of the Iraqi Special Tribunal on Saturday started interrogating Saddam Hussein's former defense minister and the notorious general known as Chemical Ali, who is accused of gassing thousands of Kurds in the 1980s, the lead judge said.
AP
Iraqi judges interrogated the notorious general known as "Chemical Ali" and Saddam Hussein's former defense minister Saturday, opening the first phase of the first legal proceedings against top deputies of the ousted dictator, as Iraq's government hastened the pace of the legal proceedings ahead of next month's critical elections.

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. The gray-haired first cousin of Saddam leaned on a walking stick before sitting in front of a judge behind a desk.

Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Saddam's last defense chief, stared blankly at the ground as police officers stood to either side of him holding his arms. Ahmad, a thickly set man with black mustache, later smiled broadly to others in the hearing room.

"I have been a military officer for 40 years and have never been punished. It's unfortunate that I have to sit like this before the court with the Americans sitting behind me," Ahmad told the judge, according a defense laweyer who attended the hearings. The lawyer declined to be identified.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Bob Callahan declined to say if American
officials were present.

The hearings were apparently timed to remind voters of the brutality they endured before the Americans ousted the dictatorship. The Iraqis will vote for a transitional assembly that will write a permanent constitution.

An official familiar with the procedure said the hearings are expected to continue Monday and involve a third detainee, whose identity was not revealed.

In other developments:

  • A National Guardsman who pleaded guilty to killing a 17-year-old Iraqi soldier said he shot the young man after they had consensual sex in a guard tower, The News & Observer of Raleigh (N.C.) reported Saturday. Pvt. Federico Daniel Merida, 21, pleaded guilty to murder without premeditation and other charges during a court-martial in Iraq in September. Merida was sentenced Sept. 25 to 25 years in prison and reduced in rank and will be dishonorably discharged. He is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a Leavenworth spokeswoman said.
  • Iran said Saturday some 1,500 of its nationals have been jailed in Iraq and efforts to secure their release have made little progress, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
  • Some 100 refugees from Fallujah demonstrated in Baghdad Saturday, demanding an apology from the Iraqi government for the U.S.-led assault againt Fallujah last month.
  • Brian "Kato" Kaelin, the aspiring actor who was a house guest of O.J. Simpson and testified at his murder trial, told a radio audience in his native Milwaukee his family is mourning the death of his nephew in Iraq.

    The two former Saddam inner-circle members were the first to go before an investigative hearing from among 11 jailed top figures who, along with Saddam, are facing trials for alleged 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 of the hearings 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.

    "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 asserted 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.

    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 during the 1980s. The offensive includes 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.

    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."

    Ahmad, the former defense minister, 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.

    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 concerns for the success of the vote.

    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.

    Iraq's justice minister has also accused his government of rushing to try the officials, saying the trials should wait until after the Jan. 30 elections.

    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.

    Insurgents renewed attacks across northern Iraq Saturday, targeting election offices, executing two civilians and wounding four American security contractors in a roadside bomb attack. An Iraqi
    militant group also claimed responsibility in a video posted on an Islamic Internet site for the Dec. 8 killing of two U.S. contractors.

    The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned insurgents who on Friday ambushed a Turkish diplomatic convoy and killed five Turkish security guards attached to Ankara's embassy in Baghdad and two of their Iraqi drivers in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.

    Three other Turks escaped the ambush to safety, including the embassy's defense attaché, who was wounded and taken to a U.S. military hospital, according to a Foreign Ministry statement issued Saturday. The statement said U.S. forces reportedly killed at least one militant.