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First shot fired in Saddam case

Baghdad, July 17 (Reuters): Iraq’s special tribunal has laid the first formal charges against Saddam Hussein for crimes committed during his 25-year rule and proceedings could begin “within days”, the tribunal said today.

Its chief investigating judge told a news conference in Baghdad Saddam had been charged, with three others, with killings of Shias in the village of Dujail in 1982.

The case is seen as relatively minor compared to accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity that have also been levelled at the former president. But investigators say it may be easier to prove Saddam’s personal culpability in the smaller case, leading to a swift conviction and possible death sentence.

The judge, Raed Jouhi, said court proceedings could begin within days, although diplomatic sources said he was probably referring to pre-trial motions rather than the trial itself.

Under Iraq’s justice system at least 45 days must elapse between the filing of charges and the start of a trial. Jouhi did not say when the charges announced today had been filed.

The other defendants are Barzan al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother and former head of Iraq’s intelligence service; Taha Yasin Ramadan, former Vice-President; and Awad Hamad al-Bander, former chief judge of Saddam’s Revolutionary Court.

The Dujail case relates to the killing of an estimated 140 residents after an attempt to assassinate Saddam as his convoy passed through the village, 60 km north of Baghdad.

The retribution is also alleged to have included jailing hundreds of women and children from the town in southern Iraq and destroying the date palm groves that sustained Dujail.

Dujail is among a dozen cases that prosecutors are working to bring against Saddam amid increasing pressure from Iraq’s new Shia-led government for the former President to be brought to justice nearly two years after he was captured.

Jouhi said Saddam and half a dozen of his former lieutenants, including his feared cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali”, and Tareq Aziz, a former deputy Prime Minister, could also be charged in other cases soon.

“Other investigations are continuing and are nearing their final stages,” he said, adding they could be completed in weeks.

Those inquiries cover the crushing of Kurdish and Shia revolts after the 1991 Gulf War, the 1987-88 campaign against Kurds in the north, and the killing of clerics, Jouhi said.

While Iraqi investigators, aided by US experts, continue to gather evidence against Saddam and others for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, much of their work has been held up by the country’s dire security situation.

Of more than 200 mass graves identified around Iraq, only a handful have been properly examined by forensic experts. The difficulty of completing those investigations is one reason why Dujail will now be the first crime for which Saddam is tried.

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