Iraqi police said they had smashed an al-Qaeda cell plotting to kill the chief judge in charge of building the case against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, whose trial resumes today after a five-week recess.
"We arrested 12 members of a cell linked to the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda during a dawn raid on a house in eastern Kirkuk," in northern Iraq, police colonel Anwar Kader said on Saturday.
"They confessed during questioning to planning to kill [chief judge] Raed al-Juhi this week," he said.
Juhi is the chief investigative judge on the Iraqi High Tribunal which is tasked with judging former regime officials, including Saddam, for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.
Kader said all the suspects were Iraqi Sunni Arabs from Kirkuk, from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit or from the restive western province of Al-Anbar.
The 12 suspects also confessed to helping to carry out suicide attacks in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah last month in which 10 people were killed, he said.
Security will be a top priority when the trial of Saddam and seven former henchmen resumes today in Baghdad on charges of killing 148 men and youths from the Shiite town of Dujail, north of the capital, after the former leader escaped an assassination attempt there in 1982.
Saddam, 68, who refuses to recognize the court, and his former aides have pleaded not guilty to the charges. They face the death penalty if convicted.
Saddam is likely to face a raft of other charges, ranging from his massacre of Kurds in the north of the country in 1988, to that of Shiites in the south in 1991, and crimes committed during the wars against Iran and Kuwait.
Iraqi officials said they chose to start with the Dujail case because it is relatively straighforward and well-documented.
Saddam's habit of videotaping all his orders to ensure they were carried out has backfired against him, said a source close to the investigation.
Today, the court is expected to call the first witnesses for the prosecution, who may testify from behind screens or with faces masked to protect their anonymity, according to a US official.
"It's up to the individual witnesses whether or not they show their faces or whether their identity is disguised in some other way," he said.
The trial opened on Oct. 19, but immediately recessed to give lawyers time to prepare.
The murder of two defense lawyers and the wounding of a third led however to the threat of a boycott by defense counsels.
US officials and lawyers said the threat was lifted after the lawyers were provided with security and after the US promised to assist in the investigation of the murder of the lawyers.
"It is currently expected there will be at least one defense counsel for each defendant present at the trial on November 28," the US official said, adding that most had accepted protection measures.
Some have accused Shiite-led militias, bent on retribution, for the murders, while others suspect Sunni Arab insurgents of targeting the lawyers in a bid to derail the trial.
Court sources said some lawyers have been allowed to recruit their own security detail which will be paid for by the tribunal.
This will allow them not to be associated with foreign forces.