Iraq will bring top figures of former president Saddam Hus-sein's ousted regime to court next week for the first time since they appeared before a judge five months ago, and formal indictments could be issued next month. Many have been in custody for more than a year and have not met with lawyers, prompting Saddam's attorneys to cry foul.
Key regime members face charges for crimes allegedly committed during the 35-year Baath Party dictatorship, including war crimes, mass killings and the suppression of the 1991 Shiite rebellion. Saddam, who was arrested a year ago on Monday, will not be among those to appear in court next week.
Tuesday's surprise announcement by Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi came only days after government leaders said the Special Tribunal was not yet prepared to begin the trials. Iraqi leaders, working with US officials, need to train judges and prosecutors and sort through stacks of evidence, all under the pressure of a deadly insurgency that has attacked at will.
Amid continuing violence, to help secure the country US General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced in Baghdad that the US military will have a record-high 150,000 troops in Iraq through the Jan. 30 elections and "a little bit after."
The government earlier this month said that troop levels would be raised from 138,000 to 150,000 to help secure next month's vote, which many Iraqis fear could be targeted by militants opposed to the occupation and bent on derailing the political process. Asked when exactly the troops would pull out, Myers responded: "That will be determined by events on the ground."
Allawi's government has been under pressure recently to show progress on the trials. His announcement came a day after the US military acknowledged that eight of Saddam's 11 top lieutenants went on hunger strike over the weekend to demand jail visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The officials were eating again by Monday, the military said.
Allawi may also have an eye toward Iraq's Jan. 30 elections. He officially confirmed that he would join the race when his office released a terse statement saying he would unveil his list of candidates for the vote yesterday.
It was not immediately known if next week's court hearings would be open to reporters. But officials have said the trials will be as transparent as possible.
"I can now tell you clearly and precisely that, God willing, next week the trials of the symbols of the former regime will start, one by one, so that justice can take its path in Iraq," Allawi told the interim National Council, without saying who would be tried.
He appeared to be referring to investigative hearings, which come ahead of the trials.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the tribunal was still preparing the cases and compiling evidence.
A Western official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that the hearings next week would be preliminary.
The hearings will still be important since they would be the first since Saddam and his top lieutenants appeared before the special tribunal in July, when a judge read preliminary charges including war crimes, mass killings and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.