BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein (search) met with a defense lawyer Thursday for the first time since his capture a year ago, days before several of his top aides are due to appear in court for hearings on alleged war crimes.
The unidentified attorney spent four hours with the 67-year-old former dictator at Saddam's undisclosed detention site, said his chief lawyer, Ziad al-Khasawneh (search).
"He was in good health and his morale was high and very strong," al-Khasawneh said. "He looked much better that his earlier public appearance when he was arraigned a few months ago."
The Iraqi interim government's push to get the trials for Saddam's former lieutenants underway before the Jan. 30 national elections has led to dissent even within the Iraqi Cabinet.
"Trials as symbolic as those against the dignitaries of the former regime should only start after the establishment of an Iraqi government with ballot-box legitimacy," Iraqi Justice Minister Malik Dohan al-Hassan told the Geneva daily newspaper Le Temps in an interview published Thursday.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) said Tuesday that procedures could begin as early as next week before the Iraqi Special Tribunal.
Saddam will not be among the first to appear in court. But his notorious former right-hand man, Ali Hassan al-Majid — the ex-general known as "Chemical Ali (search)" for his use of chemical weapons — is expected to appear along with 11 other former regime members at the initial investigative court hearing next week.
"The cases against his (Saddam's) henchmen are probably less complicated to prove than the cases against him," Stephen Orlofsky, a former federal judge who toured Iraq to assess its judiciary, said in an interview.
"There are probably fewer crimes and the evidence may be stronger and I'm sure the prosecution is hopeful that one or more of them will ultimately cooperate and testify against Saddam," Orlofsky said.
He said Saddam will face a special tribunal of five judges that was created to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
In Baghdad, a U.S. military official familiar with the case confirmed Saddam was visited by a lawyer for the first time since being hauled from his "spider hole" on a farm near his hometown of Tikrit on Dec. 13, 2003.
With six weeks of campaigning under way ahead of the crucial vote for a 275-member assembly, interim President Ghazi al-Yawer predicted regional and international interests will spend millions of dollars to influence the balloting — a statement aimed primarily at Iran and Syria.
"There are many parties, regional and international, who want to serve their own interests and they want to have friends in power in Iraq," al-Yawer said. "We think that millions of dollars will be spent on the elections process from outside the country. We hope that this will not happen and that the money and the decisions will be Iraqi."
Al-Yawer's comments came a day after Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan accused Iran and Syria of supporting terrorism in Iraq.
Shaalan said Tehran and Damascus backed former Saddam security operatives and Iraq's top terror figure, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search). The remarks seemed timed to coincide with announcements by Allawi and al-Yawer — both seen as strongly opposed to Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs — to run in the elections.
Officials in Baghdad and Washington have long accused Iran and Syria of letting militants cross into Iraq to fight U.S.-led forces. Tehran and Damascus deny it.
Many expect Iraq's raging insurgency to dog the campaign and the election itself, potentially scaring voters from polling stations, a result that would boost claims by opponents of the U.S.-backed government that the polls are illegitimate.
A U.S. Marine was "killed in action" Thursday while conducting security and stabilization operations in the volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad, the military said. More details were not released and the Marine's identity was withheld pending notification of relatives.
Insurgents killed 10 other people Thursday — including a government official gunned down in the capital and three refugees slain by a rocket attack in northern Iraq.
Unidentified gunmen shot and killed Qassim Mehawi (search), deputy head of the Communications Ministry, as he went to work in Baghdad, and eight of his bodyguards were injured.
A roadside bomb in western Baghdad damaged an SUV, then gunmen opened fire, killing a foreigner and wounding two others. Their nationalities were not released.
Three Iraqi National Guardsmen died and six others were injured when another roadside bomb blast in western Baghdad targeted their truck.
In Kirkuk, northern Iraq, a rocket slammed into a Kurdish refugee housing compound, killing three refugees and wounding one, police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qader said.
Two Kurdish brothers were shot to death in their shop in the predominantly Sunni Arab town of Hawija, 28 miles southwest of Kirkuk. Qader said the killers wrote graffiti on the shop walls saying, "No Kurds in Hawija."
In Ramadi, west of Baghdad, militants told journalists they shot and killed an Italian citizen after he tried to break through a guerrilla roadblock on a highway, purportedly killing one gunman in the process.
An Italian passport and Lebanese residency permit the gunmen displayed identified the man as Salvatore Santoro. A document from the Italian Embassy in Beirut seeking an Iraqi visa for the man called him an aid worker helping Iraqi children.
The journalists provided text, photos and video to The Associated Press showing militants standing next to a banner identifying them as members of the Islamic Movement of Iraqi Mujahedeen. One told the journalists the slaying was "a present to Berlusconi's stupidity" — referring to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (search), a close U.S. ally who sent troops to Iraq. Berlusconi said he was waiting for news on reports an Italian had been killed.