Judges have postponed the verdict in the war crimes trial of Saddam Hussein to review the evidence, the court announced on Tuesday, in a delay that came amid growing concern that any ruling will inflame Iraq's deadly sectarian divide.
The tribunal is faced with a heavy dilemma: A death sentence for the former Iraqi leader could enrage Sunnis, while anything less is sure to spark Shiite fury.
It is a far cry from the hopes of many US and Iraqi officials when the trial began nearly a year ago. They have touted the tribunal as part of a healing process between Iraq's divided communities -- bringing out the truth about atrocities by Saddam's regime, establishing justice and opening the door for reconciliation.
"I think it would be a positive, not a negative," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Monday concerning a verdict. "It would just bring closure to a chapter that was an unhappy and unpleasant and particularly vicious regime."
But in the past year, Shiite-Sunni divisions have only grown, with thousands killed by Sunni insurgents and death squads from both sides. After nine months of often stormy court hearings, many Sunnis -- who dominated Iraq under Saddam -- still see the tribunal as a show trial by Iraq's new Shiite leaders to take revenge on the ousted leader.
"There is sympathy with Saddam, especially because what we see now makes many nostalgic for him," said Khalaf al-Alayan, Sunni parliament member, referring to the violence that has torn the country since Saddam's April 2003 fall. "So there could be a reaction if there is a death sentence."
Meanwhile, Shiites have made clear they will only accept execution for the leader whose regime persecuted their majority community and the Kurds.
"Anything less than a death sentence will be a neglect of justice," Hassan al-Suneid, a lawmaker from the Shiite Dawa party. "I think it could be a disaster."
Saddam, along with seven other defendents, faces possible execution by hanging if found guilty on charges of crimes against humanity over a crackdown on Shiites in the town of Dujail launched in 1982. A five-judge panel will decide the ruling by a majority vote.
Court spokesman Raid Juhi told reporters that a Oct. 16 session will be held, but "will not be for the verdict. It's for the judges' review of the evidence."
He did not say when the verdict would be issued.