Baghdad deserted in nervous wait for Saddam trial verdict

A curfew is in place but, with a death sentence 'almost certain' today, violence seems inevitable
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In an attempt to head off violence following today's verdict and possible death sentence in the trial of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad's international airport is to be closedas part of a wider curfew in the capital and two neighbouring provinces.

Iraqi authorities have ordered the airport to close at 6am local time from today until further notice. The curfew, which takes effect at the same time, covers both vehicles and pedestrians in the city and the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin. A 12-hour curfew was earlier ordered across the same area and in Anbar province. Saddam's home town of Tikrit is in Salahuddin, and the three provinces are a hotbed of Sunni insurgency.

Saddam will almost certainly receive the death sentence today, when the court is due to deliver its verdict, said the former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is leading a team of international lawyers defending Saddam.

Regarded as a fringe left-wing figure in the US, despite his past prominence, Mr Clark said that a death sentence passed on the ousted Iraqi president for crimes against humanity would deliver "victors' justice" that would fuel violence in Iraq for decades.

"It's an unfair trial in more ways than you can count," said Mr Clark. "Where have we seen a trial take place in the midst of such uncontrollable violence?"

He described the court as prejudiced, and said it had already condemned Saddam. "To let there be worse than victors' justice and the revenge of all enemies at a time like this for Iraq is something history and humanity should not have to bear," Mr Clark said before flying to Baghdad. "It will create violence maybe for generations to come."

He called for Saddam to be tried by an independent, UN-sponsored court, and was scathing about the rescheduling of the verdict to within two days of Tuesday's US mid-term elections. "We call it the corruption of justice, the abuse of the judicial system for political ends. It's a crime and a very serious crime because it impacts on the integrity of government," he said.

In the US, the verdict's timing has been seen in some quarters as a White House ploy to paint its otherwise disastrous Iraq policy in the best possible colours. Asked whether the verdict would be a factor in the elections, a White House spokesman acknowledged last week: "You are absolutely right, it will be a factor."

Many Sunnis, along with some Shias and Kurds, are predicting a firestorm if the ex-president is sentenced to death, underscoring the former leader's continued stature among his fellow Sunnis and the failure of the trial to bring hoped-for reconciliation. However, most Shias, who were persecuted under Saddam but now dominate the government, are likely to be enraged if he escapes the gallows.

Soldiers on leave have been recalled to active duty in one of the heaviest security crackdowns in Baghdad. New checkpoints were set up along major roads, including within the heavily fortified Green Zone. Violence has already been running high in the past few days, with the bodies of scores of torture victims found throughout the capital.

Saddam and seven co-defendants, including a half-brother, have been on trial since October last year for their alleged roles in the deaths of around 150 Shias in the town of Dujail after an assassination attempt against the President in 1982. A second trial of Saddam - for alleged genocide against the Kurds - began in August and more charges are expected to follow. It is unclear whether those cases would move forward if he were condemned to hang.

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