Ignoring US, Chalabi Pursues Attempt to


By John F. Burns

New York Times
July 27, 2005

Aides to Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi said Tuesday that they planned to move forward with demands for the dismissal of the judge who has led the investigations of the mass killings committed under Saddam Hussein, ignoring American calls for restraint.

Ali Feisal, an aide to Mr. Chalabi, said the judge, Raid Juhi, was the most prominent of 19 judges, prosecutors and officials on a new list of those to be purged from the Iraqi tribunal set up to try Mr. Hussein and top officials of his government. All 19, Mr. Feisal said, are former members of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party and therefore legally ineligible to work for the tribunal. "Juhi's on the top of the list," Mr. Feisal said. Mr. Juhi, 34, the tribunal's chief investigative judge, is considered by American lawyers working with the tribunal to be central to its work. While handling the initial court appearance of Mr. Hussein last July, Mr. Juhi met his defiance with a stolidness that stunned Iraqis. At one point Mr. Juhi interrupted Mr. Hussein as he insisted he was still Iraq's lawful president. "Put down 'Saddam Hussein, former president,' " he told the court clerk.

On Monday the American attempt to head off Mr. Chalabi was taken up by Zalmay Khalilzad, the new American ambassador, who told reporters he had urged senior Iraqis during his first round of official talks here to prevent the damage a purge of the tribunal's judges could inflict. "It is important, and we have emphasized, and they agree, that nothing is done that undermines or weakens the independence of the tribunal," he said.

Mr. Juhi has refused to comment publicly on the controversy. But other tribunal officials said they believed that Mr. Chalabi, once the Pentagon's favorite to be Iraq's first ruler after the fall of Mr. Hussein, was using the issue of Mr. Juhi's Baathist past as cover for a political maneuver intended to protect Moktada al-Sadr, a volatile Shiite cleric who is Mr. Chalabi's new political partner. The tribunal officials, who refused to be identified out of fear for their jobs, said they believed that Mr. Chalabi wanted to punish Mr. Juhi for his role in 2003 in issuing a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Sadr, who led two uprisings against American troops last year, on murder charges. The warrant, held in abeyance by Iraqi officials as part of the deal that ended Mr. Sadr's rebellion, charged him with ordering the killing of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a prominent Shiite cleric, within hours of Ayatollah Khoei's return to Iraq from exile in April 2003.

Mr. Chalabi, who lacks a mass political following in Iraq, formed his partnership with Mr. Sadr for the elections held in January and emerged as one of the main brokers in the formation of the transitional government that now holds power. Iraqi politicians say they believe that he aims to become prime minister after the next round of elections in December for a full, five-year government, an objective that would draw heavily on his relationship with Mr. Sadr.

Ten days ago, Mr. Juhi said he had completed his investigation of the first of the cases against Mr. Hussein: the killing of 150 men and youths from the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad, after a failed assassination attempt against Mr. Hussein in 1982. The announcement set the stage for the Dujail trial, involving Mr. Hussein and three associates, which is expected to begin in September. Mr. Juhi's role in the Dujail case ended, at least in a legal sense, with his referring it to the trial court. But he remains deeply involved in the investigations of several other cases involving Mr. Hussein, all of which could eventually go to trial.

The concern among American officials is that the judge's dismissal could disrupt those investigations, which include the so-called Anfal campaign of the late 1980's, in which tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds were killed in poison gas attacks, and the repression of a Shiite rebellion in southern Iraq after the Persian Gulf war of 1991, which ended with as many as 150,000 victims shot dead and bulldozed into mass graves.

Beyond the risk of disrupting those investigations, American and Iraqi officials have said they are concerned that what seems to be Mr. Chalabi's determination to purge the tribunal of many of its top judges and officials could undermine its credibility just as it prepares for the Dujail trial and strengthen the arguments of those, including defense lawyers, who have contended that the tribunal lacks legitimacy under Iraqi law.

Those opponents have said the tribunal, created by the American occupation authority in March of last year to try top officials of the fallen government for crimes against humanity, is a violation of international law, including a provision in the Geneva conventions that the opponents have interpreted as prohibiting an occupation force from creating new judicial institutions.

The American statute creating the tribunal contained a clause barring any former Baathist from serving on its staff. But American officials, once fervent supporters of the wide-ranging vetting process known as de-Baathification, shifted more than a year ago to encouraging former Baathists to return to government, unless they had committed crimes. Now, eager to undermine the Sunni-led insurgency, they favor a more lenient policy that bars only the top four ranks of Baathists, a stipulation that would spare Mr. Juhi and other officials at the tribunal. The tribunal officials on Mr. Chalabi's list say they joined the party only because they were required to when they entered the colleges that were gateways to the legal and judicial professions under Mr. Hussein.

The Americans tried to head off a showdown when Mr. Chalabi made his intentions known earlier this month, appealing to the head of the transitional government, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to intervene to halt the dismissals. American officials, who insisted on anonymity because of the political sensitivities involved, said Mr. Jaafari had agreed that Mr. Chalabi should be curbed, but had declined to act unilaterally. Mr. Chalabi then secured the dismissal of a first group of tribunal officials, including the executive director, the head of security and the head of a witness protection program.

As the leader of one of two Shiite religious parties that head the government, both of which lost thousands of members to Mr. Hussein's atrocities, Mr. Jaafari, American officials said, was cautious in urging any step that ran counter to Shiite feelings about former Baathists. The prime minister's response has been to urge the transitional Parliament to enact legislation to establish the tribunal as a court under Iraqi law and to consider shifting it to the same standard set for all other government entities, which bars only the top ranks of former Baathists. So far, the legislators appear to have reached no conclusion, but Mr. Feisal, the Chalabi aide who is the de-Baathification committee's executive director, said he was confident that there would be no change in the rule barring former Baathists - and that Mr. Juhi would be dismissed.

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