THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Saddam Hussein's lawyers face major challenges from the United States and Iraq to their demand to move his trial to another country after two of their colleagues were killed.
Saddam's attorneys have argued all along that the only fair trial would be one held in a special international court outside Iraq. Now about 1,100 lawyers have withdrawn from his defense team, citing inadequate protection for themselves and their families.
The boycott threatens to paralyze the trial and undermine its legitimacy, dealing a blow to the Bush administration and the government in Baghdad, which have insisted Saddam face justice in his homeland before his own people.
"There is no way you can have a trial in a country where there is absolutely no authority. That is the situation in Baghdad today," Abdel-Haq Alani, a London-based lawyer who is a leading member of the defense team, told The Associated Press by phone.
In their statement Sunday, the lawyers didn't say whether Saddam's chief Iraqi attorney, Khalil al-Dulaimi, was among those who withdrew. But they said other members of the team will continue their duties in Baghdad under "dangerous circumstances." Al-Dulaimi has suggested that defense lawyers would not show up for the next session of the special tribunal, set for later this month.
Raid Juhi, one of the judges, said the withdrawals "will not affect the work of the court," adding that the Iraqi High Tribunal would appoint a new team if defense lawyers fail to appear. But he conceded that changing lawyers could result in delays because the new team would presumably need time to prepare its case.
Alani warned that Saddam would reject a court-appointed lawyer, in which case he said the trial would degenerate into a "total farce."
"The trial would proceed in the absence of the defendant because the defendant would refuse to cooperate. They might as well sentence them without a trial," he said.
Such a situation arose at the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is defending himself against war crimes charges before a U.N. tribunal at The Hague.
Last year the court appointed a lawyer to defend Milosevic but he refused to cooperate, as did most of his witnesses, and the trial ground to a halt. Ultimately the court-appointed lawyer quit, saying trying to defend a hostile client was impossible.
Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial for the 1982 deaths of 148 Shiite Muslims. Proceedings began Oct. 19 and are set to resume Nov. 28. If convicted, they could be executed by hanging.
One day after the trial began, a defense lawyer was abducted from his office by 10 masked gunmen and his body was found the next day. A second defense lawyer was shot dead and another wounded in an ambush in Baghdad last Tuesday.
The attorneys who withdrew were among some 1,500 enlisted to defend Saddam, mostly researching legal precedents, preparing briefs and performing other tasks outside the courtroom, said Jordanian lawyer Ziad al-Khasawneh, who was once part of the defense team.
Laura Dickinson, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, believes the trial ought to be moved. She suggested the United Arab Emirates as a possible venue because judges in Saddam's trial were trained there.
Kuwait and the Kurdish territory of northern Iraq also have been suggested as alternative locations.
But Iraqis feel strongly about trying Saddam at home and would almost certainly oppose a foreign court, where defendants may be spared a possible death sentence and witnesses and victims would be far removed from the process.
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said abandoning the Iraqi High Tribunal would hand a victory to insurgents.
"They want to conduct this trial under their own national authorities, and I think the people who have undertaken these terrorist assassinations obviously are trying to undercut the Iraqi judicial institutions," Bolton told the AP.
Creating a special international court would require action by the U.N. Security Council, where the United States wields a veto. China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said the issue had never been raised in the council.
Moving the trial to another country — assuming one could be found to accept it — would also require Iraq's parliament to amend the law that established the court. It states that the tribunal must have its seat in Iraq.
Government spokesman Laith Kubba said defense lawyers have twice turned down invitations to move to the heavily guarded Green Zone, where they could be protected by U.S. and other international troops. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani renewed that invitation last week.
Defense attorney Alani denied that protection was refused and said it is the duty of the United States as an occupying power to secure the safety of every individual. "They cannot protect themselves to start with. How can they offer what they haven't got?"
Even if Iraq favored relocating Saddam's trial, governments may be wary of hosting it because it could bring violence.
"Is Baghdad a war zone?" said Elise Groulx, president of the International Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. "That is a question that the judges and Iraqi government must answer."