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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Saddam charges to include gassing of Kurds

Sameer N. Yacoub Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein will go on trial within two months on charges of crimes against humanity, with prosecutors focusing on 12 “thoroughly documented” counts including the gassing of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister said Sunday.

Saddam’s trial could prove to be highly divisive in an already turbulent Iraq that shows signs of deepening sectarian divisions. Reflecting those tensions, the Shiite-led Iraqi government acknowledged Sunday that its forces may have targeted innocent Sunni Muslims in a drive to crush the insurgency in southwestern Baghdad and its suburbs.

Starting the court proceedings against Saddam in two months would overlap with the writing of a constitution.

“There should be no objection that a trial should take place within that time,” said Laith Kuba, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. “It is the government’s view that the trial of Saddam should take place as soon as possible.”

Kuba said the attack with chemical weapons on the Kurdish town of Halabja is one of the charges but did not elaborate on the other 11. An estimated 5,000 people were killed in Halabja and 10,000 others were hurt in the gassing on March 16, 1988.

In recent days, Sunni Muslim organizations have charged that many innocent Iraqis have been arrested in the drive to crush the insurgency and most were Sunnis, the minority that dominated the country during Saddam’s rule and is believed to form the insurgency’s backbone now.

“There is an improvement in security and in the performance of the security forces, but members of the army and police do cause mistakes, which do happen,” Kuba said.

There were also some claims that “soldiers took advantage and helped themselves to cash and other items. One doesn’t rule it out. I think the army needs more disciplinary measures in these cases,” Kuba said.

Regardless of the complaints and the acknowledged mistakes, the crackdown – dubbed Operation Lightning – entered its second week Sunday and appeared to have somewhat blunted insurgent attacks in the capital.

The charges of overzealous behavior by the military and police as they seek to roust the insurgents coincide with government efforts to include Sunni Arabs in the political process, and to get them involved in drafting Iraq’s new constitution. Sunni approval is necessary for the charter’s adoption in a national referendum. It is to be ready by mid-August and approved nationwide in an October vote.

“We should not forget the bigger picture, which is that the security forces have a duty to combat the (terrorist) cells that take out their anger and violence on the Iraqi people,” Kuba said.

Although the government has not provided fresh figures on the number of Iraqis arrested so far, the Interior Ministry said last Thursday that 700 people had been detained. The U.S. military said Friday it had detained at least 200 more during a two-day sweep south of Baghdad in an area known as the Triangle of Death.

The worst mistake, already acknowledged by top government officials, occurred on the second day of Operation Lightning, when U.S. forces arrested and later released the leader of Iraq’s largest Sunni Arab political party. Kuba said that at least 200 other people had been released so far.

Operation Lightning aimed in its first week to seal Baghdad’s entry points to prevent access to the capital for car bombers. It also focused on areas of southern and western Baghdad – which have predominantly Sunni Arab populations and are the capital’s most violent districts.

“Our military has taken the offensive now, taking the fight to the insurgents. This operation really will ensure better security for the capital,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN’s “Late Edition” during a visit to Washington.

Zebari also said Saddam’s trial would have a positive “impact on the security situation” in Iraq, and should begin the “sooner the better.”

Kuba, the prime minister’s spokesman, said investigating judges believe Saddam will be convicted on 12 “thoroughly documented” charges. “The judges are confident that he will be convicted of these charges,” Kuba said.

A spokesman for Saddam’s legal team, Issam Ghazawi, criticized Kuba’s comments, saying the accusations should be made through the court and the lawyers should receive a copy of the indictment.

A key element of Washington’s exit strategy from Iraq hinges on the ability of Iraq’s American-trained police and military to take control of security. The insurgency has killed at least 836 people since the government took power just over one month ago.

In Mosul, authorities announced the capture of the purported financier of the al Qaeda in Iraq group’s cell in that northern city. Mutlaq Mahmoud Mutlaq Abdullah, also known as Abu Raad, was arrested on May 29 and is believed linked to the head of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terror cell in Mosul. The arrest in Mosul was the second in seven days of an accused terror leader.

Also Sunday, Australia’s top Islamic cleric said he had seen hostage Douglas Wood and said the 63-year-old California-based Australian engineer is “still alive and in honest hands.” Sheik Taj El Din al-Hilaly is in Iraq on a mission to secure Wood’s release and said the kidnap victim had received medication for his heart condition.

The Australian was abducted in late April and a militant group calling itself the Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of Iraq released a video recording on May 1 that showed the captive pleading for Australia to withdraw its 1,400 troops from Iraq.

In Kirkuk, gunmen killed a translator working for the U.S.-led forces there, said police Lt. Hawar Mohammed.

Gunmen in eastern Baghdad opened fire on Iraqi security forces, killing a policewoman, Col. Ahmed al-Alawi said. Police are routinely targeted by insurgents who regard them as U.S. collaborators.

In western Baghdad, an Iraqi truck driver was also killed in a drive-by shooting while transporting concrete blast walls for the U.S. military, said police Lt. Akram al-Zubaee.