Delay in putting Saddam on trial 'is damaging Iraq'

"There are Baathist thugs in the country who still believe Saddam is coming back. I believe that if he had been tried before we would have better control of security now," Mr Zebari told The Independent. Three of Mr Zebari's brothers were murdered by the former Iraqi president.

He did not think the trial would go on for long "because there is no shortage of evidence. All the witnesses are there". The trial will now start on 19 October, four days after the referendum on the new constitution on 15 October.

President Jalal Talabani claimed on Tuesday that an investigating judge told him that Saddam Hussein had confessed to mass murder during his interrogation, but this was denied by the former leader's family. The coincidence of the referendum on the constitution and the trial of the ex-dictator taking place within a few days of each other will inevitably increase political tension in Iraq. The five million-strong Sunni Arab community will see both events as targeted against them. There will then be a general election for the National Assembly in December.

Five million copies of the new constitution will start being printed today after the collapse of a last-minute attempt to produce a draft constitution which would satisfy the Sunni negotiators. Most Sunni are likely to vote against it or abstain.

Mr Zebari, a veteran Kurdish leader who was at the centre of the negotiations, said he doubted the Sunni negotiators intended to reach agreement. "Every day they changed their message," he said.

Compromises were reached on how far Iraq is Islamic or part of the Arab nation, but not on how power will be divided between the centre and the regions in future. This is a crucial issue for the Kurds, who have fought for independence for almost a century. The Shia parties have recently supported establishing a Shia canton in southern Iraq. The Sunni want Iraq to remain a centralised state.

Under the new constitution, Baghdad will control all existing oil production and facilities. But there is a deep division over the ownership of oil production from oilfields to be developed in future. Mr Zebari said: "The formula is that they will be run jointly by regional and central government." This is still likely to happen but the constitution is silent on the division of revenues.

Once the Kurdish and Shia regional governments gain financial muscle from their oil revenues they will have a degree of autonomy close to independence.

The referendum will now go ahead in the teeth of opposition from Sunni leaders. But Mr Zebari doubted if they could get the two-thirds of voters in three provinces necessary to defeat the draft constitution. They are certain of getting two-thirds of the vote only in the Anbar province in western Iraq. He said the outcome of the referendum was uncertain in the three other Sunni Arab-dominated provinces of Nineveh, Tikrit and Diyala.

The Foreign Minister was also doubtful about how far the Sunni negotiators represented their own community. They were appointed under intense pressure from the US and Britain after the five million Iraqi Sunni, the backbone of the armed resistance, boycotted the election in January. The insurgents have made clear that they reject the constitution and are not prepared to compromise.

The government has been criticised for rushing to reach agreement on the constitution under pressure from the US, which is anxious to persuade its voters that progress is being made in Iraq. But Mr Zebari believes the outcome would have been the same even if more time was available.

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