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Since 1st March, 1999
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Judge grills Chemical Ali, ex-minister

Baghdad, Dec. 18 (Reuters): Saddam Hussein's cousin and feared lieutenant Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as 'Chemical Ali', and former defence minister Sultan Hashem appeared before an investigating magistrate today, an Iraqi judge said.

The hearings, promised by the interim government as it began campaigning for the first post-Saddam election, were the first of a new stage in the trial process that will press war crimes and other charges against Saddam and 11 others, officials said.

Raed Jouhi, the chief investigating judge for the Special Tribunal set up to try the leaders of the old regime, said there was no set timetable for the trials and that the other accused would also have many hearings in the investigation stage, which would determine whether to send them for trial.

'Today we met Ali Hassan al-Majid and Sultan Hashem only, These are ordinary investigative proceedings,' Jouhi said. Official film released after the hearings showed Jouhi interviewing both men, separately, at a desk in a large, bare room. Both arrived handcuffed and flanked by Iraqi policemen.

They appeared in good health, General Hashem still burly but slimmer than before his arrest and Majid, showing flashes of humour with the guards, showing his clear family resemblance to Saddam.

Hashem too smiled and chatted with those around him. Majid leant on a walking stick and appeared to be supported by one of the policemen as he stood before the judge. A copy of the Quran wrapped in green cloth lay on the judge's desk before each defendant as they appeared in turn.

Jouhi, who presided over brief hearings for Saddam and the others in July, said both men today had legal counsel.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had said last week, as campaigns began for the January 30 election, that 'trials' would begin next week. But Jouhi stressed this was not formally the start of trial but merely a preliminary stage of the legal process. 'Hurrying will not help this case,' he said.

International human rights campaigners had voiced concerns that Allawi might rush trials through. Lawyers for Saddam and the others complained they had not had access to their clients.

Saddam saw a lawyer for the first time on Thursday, just over a year since he was captured on December 13, 2003.

Majid, who earned his soubriquet for his role in using poison gas against Kurdish villagers in the late 1980s, and General Hashem were both represented by lawyers, Jouhi said.

An official from the British embassy, which is working closely with the Iraqi interim government on the trial process, said they understood that the pair were the first of the 12 to face a judge in this way. Saddam and the others last appeared to hear Jouhi read the broad thrust of charges against them.

Today, both Majid and Hashem wore neat two-piece suits, Hashem sporting a traditional dark abaya robe over his. Both wore white shirts without ties ' as Saddam did when he was last seen five months ago.

Unlike on that occasion, no sound was recorded. Saddam used his first public appearance since his defeat in March 2003 to harangue the court and lash out defiantly at his enemies.

Poll offices attacked

Insurgents have launched attacks on election offices in northern Iraq, killing two people and wounding nine six weeks before Iraqis are due to go to the polls.

Police and hospital sources said two people were killed and eight wounded today when mortars landed on an election office in Dujail, one of many around the country registering and educating potential voters ahead of the January 30 election.

Among the wounded were six Iraqi National Guards, who were guarding the office against attack in Sammara. A mortar also landed on an election office in the oil city of Kirkuk.

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