BAGHDAD, Iraq – Putting Saddam Hussein (search) on trial for war crimes is turning out to be a trial in itself, as escalating violence across Iraq makes preparations harder and riskier.
It has become increasingly difficult to exhume mass graves, recover lost and looted documents, and guarantee the safety of judges, lawyers and witnesses.
Frightened judges have withdrawn their names from consideration. Officials are reluctant to identify the new director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal (search) that will try Saddam and 11 of his top lieutenants. And there's uncertainty whether witnesses will be brave enough to testify publicly against the men who once ruled their lives with an iron fist.
There's no shortage of witnesses, Judge Dara Nor al-Din (search) told The Associated Press, "but they have to be protected. Their names and pictures must not be published."
Tarek, 49, was jailed, tortured and dismissed from the Iraqi air force in 1982. Now a trucker, he says he initially wanted to testify but has changed his mind.
"Saddam's people will kill me," said Tarek, a Shiite Muslim who asked that his full name not be used.
A law drafted by Iraqi and American lawyers allows for certain trial sessions to be held in camera.
"There are legitimate reasons of security why they could be held in closed session — security of the general public and also the people in the court," said Hania Mufti, of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
Saddam appeared in court July 1 to hear seven preliminary charges, including killing rival politicians, gassing the Kurds in 1988, invading Kuwait in 1990 and suppressing Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in 1991.
The Regime Crimes Liaison Office headed by Greg Keyhoe, a U.S. attorney appointed by the Justice Department, coordinates the evidence. But U.S. and Iraqi officials seem to differ over when Saddam's trial will begin and over some legal issues.
A U.S. official involved with the tribunal all but dismissed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's prediction that the trial could start as early as this month.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not rule out the possibility it may be a year or more before the trials begin. Allawi's deputy, Barham Saleh, acknowledged to the AP that it would take time to compile the case because so many crimes have to be documented from Saddam's 35 years in power, and so many people wanted to file lawsuits against him.
However, the ongoing violence is delaying things. Mufti said that as of July only one mass grave had been exhumed out of many found.
"The big problem is ensuring the safety of forensic teams," she said.
Judge Nor al-Din, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly and not a candidate to serve in Saddam's trial, said it was hard to find qualified judges and that several had withdrawn their candidacies because of security fears.
Also, Mufti said, the draft rules of procedure and evidence cannot be finalized until a full complement of judges has voted on it.
Then there are problems with authenticating documents that have changed hands repeatedly — sold by looters who ransacked government buildings after Saddam's fall, or acquired by political parties to identify perpetrators of crimes against their members or to cover up their own links to the ousted regime.
Saddam and others still do not have lawyers. Nor al-Din said 50 Iraqi lawyers have come forward but if not enough turn out to be qualified, the court will have to appoint attorneys for the defendants.
Mufti said that because of the violence, offices to process testimony have opened only in two relatively calm Kurdish towns, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah, raising concern that the prosecution case will be top-heavy with Kurdish testimony.
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh, a Kurd who lost several friends and relatives to Saddam's executioners, visited the accused a couple of weeks ago and stressed his trial would be fair.
"The greatest punishment that we can give him is a fair trial, not to do to him what he has done to so many of us," he said.
He spoke of "the Saddam that everybody feared, the Saddam who for the people of Iraq had become synonymous with death, destruction, vengeance," and the closure he felt after seeing him as "a broken man."
"My generation knew nothing but the tyranny of Saddam Hussein," he told the AP, "and seeing him in prison — not on television, in prison — brought it so much reality. He's over."