BAGHDAD, Iraq - The ex-general known as "Chemical Ali" because of his alleged use of chemical weapons appeared before an investigating judge yesterday to answer questions about his involvement in crimes against humanity, marking the start of judicial proceedings against the former Baath Party regime.
Ali Hassan Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, was ushered in chains into a bare courtroom before the Iraqi Special Tribunal set up to try members of the former regime, alongside Sultan Hashim Ahmad, who served as Iraq's defense minister, according to video released by the court.
The gray-haired Majid, who resembles his cousin, appeared haggard and walked with the help of a cane. Journalists were not allowed to attend the hearing.
The chief investigative judge, Raed Juhi, later stressed that the hearing did not mean the start of trials but of investigations into allegations against top figures in the Baath regime. He suggested that trials still could be some time away.
"The court now is working on the investigation," Juhi said. "Whenever there is sufficient evidence, the court will decide to hold the trial."
"Haste will not help the case and could lead to mistakes," he added.
The hearing followed a promise last week by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that trials of top former regime officials would begin this week.
Government officials said Allawi was referring to the investigation and not the actual trials.
The appearance of Majid and Ahmad, the first in public of any of the detained top former regime members since in July, coincided with the launch of Iraq's election campaign.
Wave of attacks
Sustaining their pressure ahead of the scheduled Jan. 30 elections, insurgents fired mortars yesterday at an election center in the town of Dujail, about 30 miles north of Baghdad, killing one person.
In the northern city of Mosul, a child was killed and eight others were injured when a roadside bomb aimed at a U.S. patrol missed its target and hit a school bus.
Near the northern town of Beiji, four American munitions-disposal contractors were wounded when another roadside bomb exploded, the Associated Press reported. In video posted on an Islamic Web site, a militant group claimed responsibility for the Dec. 8 slaying of American contractors Joseph Wemple and Dale Stoffel north of Baghdad.
Juhi said the Special Tribunal is investigating a range of alleged crimes dating to the Baath Party's seizure of power in 1968.
Among them are the gassing of thousands of Kurds in the northern town of Halabja in 1988, the mass executions of thousands of Shiites after the failed uprising in 1991, the forced removal of the Marsh Arabs from the marshes of southern Iraq and the 1982 destruction of Dujail after a failed assassination attempt against Hussein.
Questions about cases
Human-rights groups have questioned not only the timing of the proceedings but also the manner in which they are being held.
Iraq's inexperienced judiciary lacks the expertise to prosecute cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the statute creating Iraq's Special Tribunal does not offer adequate protection to defendants, New York-based Human Rights Watch said last week.
"Trying former Iraqi officials under the current rules could mean a wasted opportunity to put Saddam and his henchmen on trial in a manner that has credibility in the eyes of the world," the group said.
The defendants have barely been allowed access to lawyers, the group said, though Hussein was allowed last week to meet a lawyer for the first time.
Juhi said defense lawyers had attended yesterday's hearing. Most of the former regime officials being investigated had now met with lawyers, he said, "except for one or two, and it is only a matter of time."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, 1,304 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 1,166 U.S. soldiers have died.
Marine Lance Cpl. Franklin A. Sweger, 24, San Antonio; killed Thursday in Anbar province; assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Marine Corps Base, Hawaii.