BAGHDAD, Iraq – The chief judge in Saddam Hussein's genocide trial was replaced Tuesday amid complaints from Shiite and Kurdish officials that he was too soft on the former Iraqi leader, a move that could raise accusations of government interference in the highly sensitive case.
The government spokesman's office announced that judge Abdullah al-Amiri was replaced with Mohammed al-Uraibiy, who was his deputy in the trial, said a court official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Al-Uraibiy is a Shiite Muslim Arab, the official said.
The Iraqi High Tribunal, the country's supreme court, made the request in a letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who approved it, according to a government official who also asked not to be named for the same reasons.
One of Saddam's defense lawyers decried the move as purely political.
"This was a coup that succeeded. There was no legal reason for removing him (al-Amiri)," defense lawyer Badee Izzat Aref told The Associated Press.
"They (court officials) felt that he would not respond to their demands," he said.
Hussein al-Duri, an aide to the prime minister, said one reason for al-Amiri's dismissal was the judge's comments last week in a court session, in which he told Saddam, "You were not a dictator."
"The head of the court is requested to run and control the session, and he is not allowed to violate judicial regulations, " al-Duri told Al-Arabiya television. "It is not allowed for the judge to express his opinion."
Al-Amiri's comment angered many Kurds and Shiites, fueling their criticism that he was too lenient with Saddam. Prosecutors in the trial had already asked for al-Amiri to be replaced after he allowed Saddam to lash out at Kurdish witnesses during a court session.
The change could revive complaints that the government is interfering in the tribunal trying Saddam and his regime members to ensure a quick guilty verdict. In the current trial, Saddam faces a possible death penalty if convicted on genocide charges over the Anfal military offensive against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s.
In Saddam's first trial — over alleged atrocities against Shiites in the town of Dujail — the chief judge stepped down halfway through the 9-month-long proceedings, saying he could no longer put up with criticism from officials that he was too lenient in allowing courtroom outbursts by Saddam and his co-defendants.
He was replaced by a far tougher judge who several times threw out defendants and defense lawyers he said were out of line.
A verdict in the Dujail trial is expected on Oct. 16.
The current case against Saddam began on Oct. 21. Al-Amiri presided over the latest session of that trial Tuesday, in which more Kurdish survivors of Anfal recounted chemical bombardment of their villages by the Iraqi military.
One witness, Iskandar Mahmoud Abdul-Rahman, a major in the Kurdistan security force, told the court that an attack on his village began on March 20, 1988 when Iraqi aircraft appeared over the skies.
"We took the floor; white smoke covered us, it smelled awful," Abdul-Rahman testified in Kurdish through an Arabic interpreter. "My heartbeat increased. I started to vomit. I felt dizzy. My eyes burned and I couldn't stand on my feet."
Abdul-Rahman said he was treated at two hospitals in Iran. In the second hospital, he said he lost consciousness for 10 days.
"The doctors were frequently giving me injections and medication, including eye drops. They cut the burned skin with scissors. I can show the court my scars that are still visible on my body," he said, adding that his eyesight is still poor.
Abdul-Rahman then removed his blue shirt to show several dark scars, each roughly 20 centimeters (8 inches) long, on his back. Saddam's chief lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, and prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon approached the witness to take a closer look.
Saddam — dressed in a dark suit with a white handkerchief in his chest pocket — sat silently throughout the testimony, quietly taking notes.
Saddam and six other defendants are on trial for alleged atrocities against Kurds during Operation Anfal, a crackdown on Kurdish guerrillas in the late 1980s. The prosecution alleges some 180,000 people died in the campaign, many of them civilians killed by poison gas.
Saddam and his cousin "Chemical" Ali al-Majid are charged with genocide, and the others with various offenses. All could face death by hanging if convicted.
Two other witnesses also testified Tuesday, repeating allegations of abuse suffered during the crackdown.
Raouf Faraj Abdullah, a 55-year-old farmer, told of poor living conditions in a detention camp in the northern city of Irbil.
"We stayed without food. Our condition was poor. The local people of Irbil began hurling us food over the barbed wire," said the man, who had a thick black mustache and wore the traditional Kurdish headdress.
He said he was later moved to another camp, where he was separated from his 2-year-old son and his wife, who later gave birth in her prison cell.
"When I went to see her, I found out that my newborn baby had died," he said.
He said 28 people were killed in attacks on his village.
A third witness, Ubeyd Mahmoud Mohammed, said 70 people were killed, including his wife and six children, in a March 22, 1988 attack on his village.