Days after its chief judge submitted his resignation, the court trying Saddam Hussein was thrown into further turmoil Wednesday when a senior Iraqi official vowed to block the appointment of a successor because of his alleged membership in Hussein’s Baath Party.
The move against Judge Said Hammashi, who was assigned by colleagues on the trial panel to take over the case, is the latest of several government efforts to exert influence over a process beset by procedural delays, disorderly outbursts by Hussein and his co-defendants, and the slayings of two defense lawyers.
Ali Lami, head of a government commission set up to purge former Baathists from public office, said he had petitioned the court to bar Hammashi from presiding over the trial when it resumes Tuesday after a one-month break. If the court does not comply, Lami said, he will ask the Cabinet to enforce a statute that bars former Baathists from being prosecutors and judges.
In violence across Iraq on Wednesday, at least 36 people were killed or found dead. Insurgent attacks on vehicles were responsible for the deaths of two American security contractors near Basra and, in Baghdad, at least six Iraqi guards escorting two African engineers for Iraq’s main cellphone company. The engineers were missing and presumed kidnapped.
The chaos surrounding Hussein’s trial, which has convened just seven times since opening Oct. 19, has troubled the Bush administration as well as independent observers. U.S. officials oversaw the tribunal’s creation and have tried to shield it from Iraqi government interference.
Rizgar Mohammed Amin submitted his resignation as chief of the five-judge trial panel last week, complaining of government pressure to speed up the proceedings and rein in the defendants. The remaining judges said they designated the 54-year-old Hammashi, the oldest and most experienced among them, to take over after Amin rejected their appeals to stay on the bench.
Miranda Sissons, who is observing the trial for the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, said the reaction against Hammashi could further undermine the stability of the court.
President Bush said Wednesday that the trial was on track. Meeting at the White House with Iraqis who had been imprisoned or lost family members during Hussein’s regime, he predicted that the trial would conclude this year and that the world would see “the butcherer get his due justice under rule of law.”
Hussein and seven other defendants are accused of ordering the executions of more than 140 residents of Dujayl, a predominantly Shiite Muslim village, in retaliation for a 1982 assassination attempt there against then-President Hussein. It is the first of a dozen or more trials in which Hussein could face the death penalty if convicted.
For months, the Shiite-led government has been pressing the court to speed up the trial, hoping a swift verdict will demoralize Hussein’s Sunni Muslim Arab supporters, who dominated the Baath Party and now lead the insurgency. Last summer the government purged nine of the court’s administrative officers under anti-Baathist laws.
In an interview Wednesday, Lami acknowledged that those laws had been selectively enforced, especially in the legal profession, where Baath Party membership was often a requirement to serve. Lami said Hammashi had been allowed to remain on the bench despite his alleged Baathist past but “must not be allowed to hold a leadership position.”
Hammashi could not be reached for comment. The court’s chief prosecutor, Jaafar Mousawi, said the judge had denied having belonged to the party.
If anything, Hammashi might be less disposed to give leeway to the defendants. Like the victims of the Dujayl killings, he is a Shiite. And he has “a more aggressive temperament” than Amin, said Michael P. Scharf, a Case Western Reserve University law professor who helped train the trial judges.
Raid Juhi, the court’s chief investigator, said Hammashi was “certainly capable of running this court.”
In Wednesday’s violence, a roadside bomb hit a pair of four-wheel-drive vehicles traveling near Basra, killing two American civilians working for DynCorp International on a contract to train Iraqi police. A third American employee of the Irving, Texas-based company was wounded.
On the main street of Baghdad’s dangerous Nafaq al Shurta neighborhood, insurgents ambushed a convoy carrying two African engineers employed by Iraqna, a cellphone company owned by Egypt’s Orascom Telecom group. At least six guards were killed, an Iraqna spokesman said. Hospital officials put the death toll at nine.
The Iraqna spokesman said the engineers, who were apparently abducted, were from Malawi and Madagascar. The Malawian government denied that one of its nationals was involved, Associated Press reported. Iraqna engineers are a frequent target of insurgents’ attempts to disrupt Iraqi infrastructure.
An American soldier based in Baghdad died of noncombat wounds Tuesday, the U.S. military reported.
Also, kidnappers freed the sister of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a ministry official said. He gave no details. The woman was seized Jan. 3 in an attack that left a bodyguard dead.
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Zainab Hussein in Baghdad and James Gerstanzang in Washington contributed to this report.