Defense attorneys in the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants are expected to attend next week's session despite an earlier threat to boycott the proceedings after two team members were assassinated, a U.S. official said Wednesday.
The official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said American and Iraqi authorities have urged defense lawyers to accept their offers of the "most robust security possible."
As a result, he said, the Iraqi tribunal expects at least one attorney for each defendant — including Saddam's personal counsel, Khalil al-Dulaimi — to appear at the Monday session. A total of 12 defense lawyers attended the Oct. 19 opening session.
Attempts by The Associated Press to reach al-Dulaimi on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
However, a senior official from the Iraqi High Tribunal said talks with defense lawyers about their security were still ongoing. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Fears for the safety of the defense lawyers rose after attorney Saadoun al-Janabi was abducted by masked gunmen the day after the opening session. His body was found the next day with bullets in his head.
On Nov. 8, defense lawyer Adel al-Zubeidi was killed in an ambush and a colleague, Thamir al-Khuzaie, was wounded. Al-Khuzaie fled the country and asked for asylum in Qatar.
In case the defense fails to show, the court will ask "standby" lawyers from the tribunal's Defense Counsel Office to step in, the U.S. official said.
"They will be given adequate opportunity to meet their clients, and the court is expected to give them that," the official said.
The defendants, who face the death penalty if convicted, will have a say in who represents them but will not be allowed to delay the proceedings, the official said. Iraqi law prohibits defendants from representing themselves.
Saddam was captured by U.S. troops nearly two years ago after spending eight months on the run following the fall of his regime in April 2003. He and the others are charged in the 1982 deaths of more than 140 Shiites in the town of Dujail north of Baghdad following an assassination attempt against him there.
It is the first of up to a dozen cases expected to be filed against the ousted ruler and his closest lieutenants for atrocities allegedly committed during his 23-year rule.
Politicians — including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite whose family members suffered from torture and imprisonment under Saddam's regime — have made it clear they want the trial to proceed vigorously while maintaining its transparency and fairness.
A Saddam conviction, according to Shiite and Kurdish politicians, would allow Iraq to close a dark chapter of its history and heal some of its postwar wounds.
An insurgency led by Sunni Arabs, a minority to which Saddam belongs, has been raging for 30 months, targeting Iraq's Shiite majority and nascent security forces with bombings, execution-style killings and kidnappings.
The defense lawyers consistently have maintained that the tribunal trying Saddam and the others was illegitimate because it was set up under the U.S.-led occupation.
Their withdrawal from the case and their replacement by court-appointed attorneys could undermine the credibility of the trial and cause delays. There have been repeated calls in and outside Iraq for the trial to be moved outside the country for safety reasons and to distance the proceedings from the pressures of a nation still recovering from the effects of Saddam's rule.
Iraqi leaders have consistently rejected such calls, the latest of which came Wednesday from a group representing lawyers across the European Union. The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents 700,000 lawyers in the 25 EU nations, said in a letter to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari that a change of venue was needed after the killing of the two lawyers.