BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — In the year since he was captured and hustled away to a secret location, Saddam Hussein has taken up gardening, undergone a hernia operation and written poetry that one visitor describes as “rubbishy.”
What he has not done is meet with any of the 20 lawyers who claim to represent him. And with the country in the grips of an insurgency that remains strong, predicting when Iraq’s most famous prisoner will be tried is no easier now than it was on the day he was pulled from his hiding spot in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit.
When Saddam first appeared before an Iraqi court in July, some officials predicted a swift trial. Ever since, they have said October, November or by the end of the year. Now, they expect it no earlier than the beginning of 2006, Iraq’s National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told The Associated Press.
“This is going to be probably the trial of the century and we have to get it right,” al-Rubaie said. “We can’t suddenly try him and sentence him to either life in prison or whatever, execute him 100 times as some people want to do.”
Officials say the work of gathering evidence — documents, mass grave sites, testimony from victims — continues away from the public eye and beyond the reach of the insurgents. They insist that it is being done meticulously and legitimately.
U.S. officials with the Department of Justice’s Regime Crimes Liaison Office are advising the Iraqi Special Tribunal on the process of bringing Saddam to trial. The Americans paid the tribunal’s budget of $75 million in 2004-2005.
But with elections approaching on Jan. 30, the Iraqi government is in flux and is likely to stay that way for another year until a new constitution is drafted and another round of elections is held next December.
Trainers also face a dearth of qualified Iraqi prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. If proper attorneys are found, they take a new kind of risk — threat from both the guerrillas, believed to be mostly Sunni Muslims like Saddam, or others trying to stymie the trial.
There are few Iraqi lawyers willing to represent him, while prosecutors fear challenging him. The same goes for the judges who are overseeing the case, slowing its work.
“At various points in time they have had a number of judges who have since withdrawn,” said Hania Mufti, a spokeswoman for New York-based Human Rights Watch who has followed the case. “So that’s been a practical problem on the ground.”
That fact has been sobering for the Americans, who predicted Saddam’s capture would cripple the insurgency. They portrayed violence immediately after his capture as the last gasp of desperate loyalists.
“Saddam’s era is over,” Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said days after Saddam was captured. “But it takes time for people to accept the changes.”
Since then, the guerillas have continued exacting a bloody toll against U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies.
The United States is increasing troop levels to 150,000, higher than they were when the war began, in hopes of providing safety for elections set for Jan. 30.
U.S. attention has also shifted to another figure — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — believed to be leading the brutal campaign of hostage-takings, beheadings and bombings that victimized both Americans and Iraqis.
Saddam first appeared before the court July 1, without a lawyer. He was presented with seven preliminary charges that included gassing thousands of Kurds in 1988, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of 1991 revolts by Kurds and Shiites, the murders of religious and political leaders and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.
From Saddam’s standpoint, little headway has been made since. He is said to have a 20-member legal team with lawyers from Belgium, Britain, France, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia, but has met none of them. A lawyer was supposed to meet him for the first time last Wednesday but the U.S. military canceled it.
“Denying him this right is a serious breach of international protocols,” Saddam’s lawyers, who were appointed by Saddam’s wife, Sajida, said in a statement yesterday timed with the anniversary.