WASHINGTON – A team of 50 Justice Department prosecutors, investigators and support staff is going to Iraq beginning this weekend to assemble war crimes cases against former President Saddam Hussein (search) and others in his former regime, a senior official said Saturday.
The goal of the effort is to sift through thousands of pages of evidence and provide a roadmap for Iraqis to use when they eventually bring Saddam and others in his administration before war crimes tribunals. U.S. officials want the world to view the trials as an Iraqi process, not one run by Americans or other foreigners.
The U.S. team includes main Justice lawyers, FBI agents, U.S. Marshals Service (search) members and others involved in the federal criminal justice system, said a senior Justice Department official.
"It's one piece of the international effort to assist the Iraqis in putting together these proceedings," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are learning how to put together a legitimate legal system."
The Iraqi Governing Council (search) has already set up tribunals consisting of three panels of five judges each, with nine other judges to serve on an appeals panel. The timetable for a trial of Saddam, who was captured by U.S. forces on Dec. 14, is not yet clear, nor are the charges that might be brought.
The Justice Department team will be assigned to a new Regime Crimes Adviser's Office run by the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is headed by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer. The office will also include legal officials from other countries, including Great Britain, Spain and Poland, the Justice official said.
The legal developments were first reported by The New York Times on its Internet site Saturday. The newspaper also quoted Salem Chalabi, an Iraqi lawyer in charge of the war crimes issue, as saying the trials might not begin until late this year and that Saddam might not be the first defendant.
According to the newspaper, Chalabi said Iraqis want to avoid giving Saddam an international platform to try to justify his actions, as former Serbian leader and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has done in his war crimes trial at The Hague, Netherlands.
"We don't want the tribunal and people like Saddam to be the principal teller of the history here," the Times quoted Chalabi as saying. "We want to bring very specific charges."
The Justice Department has sent dozens of other officials to Iraq in the months since the war ended to help create a modern, democratic legal system. These officials have trained judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, investigators, police and prison personnel, among others.