BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi officials plan to make one of the highest-profile figures in Saddam Hussein's regime — Ali Hassan al-Majid (search), called "Chemical Ali" by the West — the first person to be tried for war crimes.
"In the next few days we will have the trial of Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of the close followers of Saddam Hussein," Defense Minister Hazim al-Shaalan said Wednesday. "He will be the first to be tried."
The trial could begin as early as next week, but would definitely begin by the middle of January, al-Shaalan added.
Like many of Saddam's closest confidants, "Chemical Ali" is a kinsman from Tikrit. Leading the list of charges against him will be allegations that he ordered the gassing of as many as 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja (search) in March 1988, near the end of the Iran-Iraq War.
Al-Majid's trial, and possibly those of others, is set to start just before Iraq holds its first post-Saddam election. U.S. officials see the trial as an important step in establishing accountability in the country.
"I think these trials will be welcomed by the vast majority of the Iraqi people as they see justice being done in a respectable fashion," L. Paul Bremer (search), the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq before the country's interim government stepped into place, told FOX News on Wednesday. "That will be another step in the respect for the rule of law."
Many former Saddam aides who face war-crimes trials have been in custody for more than a year and have not met with lawyers, prompting Saddam's attorneys to cry foul.
The former government officials face charges for crimes allegedly committed during the 35-year Baath Party (search) dictatorship, including mass killings and the suppression of a 1991 Shiite rebellion.
Saddam, who was arrested a year ago Monday, will not be among those to appear in court next week, The Associated Press has learned.
Tuesday's surprise announcement by Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) came only days after government leaders said the Special Tribunal was not yet prepared to begin the trials.
Iraqi leaders, working with U.S. 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.
On Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed seven people at an entrance to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone (search), the second such attack in two days.
The U.S. military also announced that two U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based in western Iraq, died in combat in Baghdad province Monday, bringing the number of Marines killed in three days to 10.
On Wednesday, a U.S. soldier died from gunshot wounds sustained Tuesday during a convoy mission south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The soldier belonged to the 1st Corps Support Command and was shot near Forward Operation Base Kalsu.
Another Marine was killed in action Tuesday in Anbar province, according to a statement released Wednesday by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Anbar is the vast province west of Baghdad containing the battleground cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
To help secure the country, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced in Baghdad that the U.S. military would have a record-high 150,000 troops in Iraq through the Jan. 30 elections and "a little bit after."
The government had said in early December 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 U.S. military acknowledged that eight of Saddam's 11 top lieutenants went on hunger strikes over the weekend to demand jail visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross (search).
The officials were eating again by Monday, the military said.
The prime minister also may have an eye toward Iraq's Jan. 30 elections. Allawi officially confirmed he would join the race when his office released a terse statement saying he would unveil his list of candidates for the vote on Wednesday.
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, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the tribunal was still preparing the cases and compiling evidence.
"There is a court process that involves investigative judges and a hearing for some of the former regime officials that is under preparation that we would expect to be held next week," Boucher said. "At that point, the accused and their attorneys do go to court, although that's not the actual trial."
A Western official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that the hearings next week would be preliminary
Lawyers for the defendants complained they had not had time to consult with their clients, and said that any proceedings under such conditions would be seen as political show trials.
Saddam's Jordan-based lawyers say they have not even seen the former dictator.
"The Iraqi court will be in violation of the basic rights of the defendants, which is to have access to legal counsel while being interrogated and indicted," Ziad al-Khasawneh said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.