BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi court trying Saddam Hussein announced Tuesday the postponement of the verdict in his trial to give the judges more time to review evidence, amid widespread worries over the decision's impact at a time of sharp Shiite-Sunni divisions in Iraq.
The court had been expected to announce its verdict Oct. 16, when it reconvenes for the first time since July 27, when nine months of testimony were completed.
Court spokesman Raid Juhi told the Associated Press that the Oct. 16 session will be held, but "will not be for the verdict. It's for the judges' review of the evidence."
Juhi said he could not say when the verdict would be issued, but the review raised the possibility the judges could ask to recall some witnesses or seek new testimony on some pieces of evidence.
A court official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to release the information, said the verdict could be put off until late October or early November.
Saddam and his co-defendants face possible execution by hanging if found guilty on charges against humanity over a crackdown on Shiites in the town of Dujail launched in 1982.
But any verdict raises the possibility of a violent reaction amid the deepening sectarian tensions that have torn Iraq. Thousands have been killed in Shiite-Sunni violence this year.
A death sentence could outrage Sunnis, many of whom feel the trial has been merely a show put on by the now dominant Shiites to pave their way for vengeance against the former Iraqi leader. Minority Sunnis were dominant under Saddam but lost power to Shiites, who comprise some 60 percent of Iraq's population, after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
But anything less than a death sentence would spark fury among Shiites, who have been eager to see Saddam — who persecuted Shiites throughout his rule — taken to the gallows.
A guilty verdict for Saddam is widely expected — but the court official suggested that there were differences over how heavy a sentence to impose.
"If a verdict for the heaviest sentence comes, the violence may increase in reaction. If the sentence is less, it will be a disaster, angering (Shiite) political parties and the street," said the official.
The longer review of the evidence is intended to ensure that the final verdict — which will be accompanied by a report explaining the reasoning in detail — "is complete, that no one can put holes in it," he said.
Juhi did not link the delay to worries over tensions in Iraq. He said the judges have been reviewing the evidence and testimony from the trial to determine "whether it is complete or is lacking."
If they decide it is lacking, they could call back witnesses or review other evidence. Juhi would not say whether he believed this would likely happen. "It is up to the judges to issue a decision on this," Juhi said.
Saddam and his co-defendants have the opportunity for appeal of any verdict.
The Dujail trial, which began Oct. 19, is the first for Saddam. A second trial of the former Iraqi leader and six other co-defendants began Aug. 21 on genocide charges for their alleged roles in a bloody 1987-1988 crackdown against Kurdish rebels.
It was adjourned last week until Oct. 9 after a stormy session during which the chief judge expelled all of the defendants.
Earlier in the week, Chief Judge Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa had replaced the previous chief judge, who was accused of being too soft on the former president.
Saddam's attorneys responded by boycotting the proceedings, and al-Khalifa put the trial on hold in order to give Saddam and the other defendants time to convince their lawyers to end the boycott or to confer with new ones.
The Dujail trial was equally stormy, with frequent outbursts by Saddam and his top co-defendant, former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim.
The trial heard extensive testimony from Shiite survivors of the crackdown, recounting torture while in prison and the deaths of loved ones. The crackdown was sparked by a 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam by Shiite rebels.
Hundreds of Dujail residents were arrested, some tortured to death, and 148 Shiites were sentenced to death for involvement in the attempt to kill Saddam. The prosecution argued that they were executed after a fake trial and that the crackdown aimed to punish the entire town.
The main evidence against Saddam were a series of documents signed by him — the order for the 148 to be put on trial, the approval of their death sentences and an approval of rewards for several intelligence officers involved in the crackdown.
The defense argued that the crackdown was justified in response to the assassination attempt — a feeling shared by many Sunnis. They also argue that the documents don't add up a crime against humanity since Saddam was performing his constitutional role in ordering suspects put on trial, then signing off on the verdict against him.