Chaos as Saddam trial chief judge replaced again

Just days after assurances by US and Iraqi officials that the case would proceed without further alterations, Sayeed al-Hamashi, the latest presiding judge who replaced Rizgar Amin, was forced to step down yesterday. The court trying the ousted Iraqi president has now appointed Raouf Abdel Rahman, a Kurd, to the post.

The announcement was immediately followed by a declaration by Saddam Hussein's legal team that the trial had lost all credibility and should be moved to another country.

And today the trial's restart was further postponed until Sunday. A court official blamed that the delay on the absence of witnesses who were on a pilgrimage.

The demise of Mr Hamashi, who is a Shia, followed revelations that he was being investigated by Iraq's Debaathification Committee for his alleged close links to the former regime. American officials had said last week that the debaathification laws introduced in 2003 did not apply to the tribunal.

Mr Rahman is said to have been initially unwilling to take over the role. However, a court official said: " We were running out of judges; don't forget there are just five in the panel."

To add to the confusion, the government is yet to accept Mr Amin's resignation. The judge, who is Kurdish, resigned in protest, he said, at political interference in his handling of the proceedings. US and Iraqi authorities had accused Mr Amin of being too lenient towards Saddam, and of allowing him to dominate the televised proceedings.

Mr Hamashi, who denied being a member of the Baath Party, said: "This is a conspiracy by Baathists and Saddam loyalists."

The new chief judge, Mr Rahman, is from Halabja, where 5,000 people died in a gas attack by Iraqi forces under Saddam in 1988. Tribunal officials said that, despite this, the judge would be "fair and impartial" in presiding over the trial.

Seven people associated with the case, including two members of the defence team, have so far been killed.

Ramsey Clark, a former US attorney general who is now working with Saddam's lawyers, said: "It's unthinkable that they would press forward. We expect greater intimidation and pressures. That's what the message from the pressures put on Mr Amin say, 'run this railroad, get going, move and run over anyone who gets in the way'."

The first charges faced by the former Iraqi president relate to the deaths of 140 people at the Shia town of Dujail in 1982.

If the trial proceeds this week as planned, Saddam may be confronted from the witness stand by former associates.

"There will be former regime members among witnesses appearing on several days of hearings," a Western diplomat, who is closely involved in the trial, said yesterday.

The first trial could be finished by late May, he said, but at least half a dozen others were lined up and the process may take years.

However, Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's vice-president and a leading contender to become the next prime minister, said the continuing trial was having a " negative effect" on the country. "The continuing process is unnecessary and will only hurt the Iraqi people." Saddam, he believes, should have been summarily executed.

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