Global Policy Forum

Iraqis Battle Over Control of Panel to Try Hussein


By John F. Burns and Dexter Filkins

New York Times
September 24, 2004

A bitter political struggle has erupted over control of the special Iraqi tribunal set up to try Saddam Hussein and his associates, with Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his rivals maneuvering for influence over the appointment of judges, the timing of trials, the scope of charges and even who will stand trial and who will escape the death penalty by cutting deals with prosecutors. That battle burst into the open on Thursday when Salem Chalabi, the American-trained lawyer appointed the tribunal's chief administrator in May, accused Dr. Allawi of dismissing him only five months into a three-year term so as to take "political control" of the tribunal.

International legal experts have become concerned about Dr. Allawi's effort to accelerate the tribunal's work and begin at least the first trial as early as November, before national elections scheduled for January. That would be at least six months earlier than officials have repeatedly said would be the minimum time needed to prepare for trials that will examine the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Mr. Chalabi said Dr. Allawi was seeking to speed some of the trials to gain popularity while moving to "quash any potential indictments" against other former Baath Party officials whom Dr. Allawi, a former Baathist himself, sees as possible allies. "Show trials followed by speedy executions may help the interim government politically in the short term, but will be counterproductive for the development of democracy and the rule of law in Iraq in the long term," Mr. Chalabi said in a statement e-mailed to reporters from London. He appealed to "the international community," meaning primarily the United States, to "get more actively involved in the work of the tribunal" and end Dr. Allawi's interference.

Dr. Allawi has denied any intention of controlling the tribunal. In an interview in Baghdad last week, he said Mr. Chalabi had not been dismissed, but had resigned. He also denied manipulating tribunal appointments, saying he was only vaguely aware of the man named to be Mr. Chalabi's successor, Amer Bakri, identified by Mr. Chalabi on Thursday as a member of Dr. Allawi's political party, the Iraqi National Accord. Dr. Allawi said he did not know Mr. Bakri's first name. Mr. Bakri could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Allawi said the extent of his involvement with the tribunal had been to urge its officials to speed the trials, meeting a yearning among Iraqis for justice to be done to Mr. Hussein and others who inflicted decades of brutality on them. Referring to Mr. Chalabi and other tribunal officials who have said that it might take another year to bring the first of Mr. Hussein's top associates to trial, and perhaps two years for Mr. Hussein, he added: "It's too slow. It's something we want to get done and put it behind us."

But other Iraqi officials who are not members of the Iraqi National Accord have said that Mr. Chalabi's removal was only one of several moves by Dr. Allawi to take control of key tribunal posts. These officials have circulated a copy of a letter Dr. Allawi sent two weeks ago dismissing a senior judge named as president of the tribunal, Naim al-Egaili, saying his appointment was illegal. The tribunal's president will name the five-judge panels that will preside at the trials, and will also influence other issues, including the order in which Mr. Hussein and his lieutenants will come to trial, and the scope of the charges. No new president has been appointed.

The concern about the tribunal is part of a wider pattern of wariness among United States officials in Baghdad toward Dr. Allawi, who was named interim prime minister in June partly because the Bush administration was attracted by his reputation as a political hard-liner. His history - he was sent to London in the 1960's by Mr. Hussein to oversee Baath Party members there - was cited by American officials at the time of his appointment as an advantage, enabling Dr. Allawi, a Shiite, to reach out to the Sunni minority.

But after 12 weeks, Iraqi and American officials familiar with the relationship between the Americans and Dr. Allawi say, American respect for the Iraqi leader has been tempered by a growing sense that he is careless, even dismissive, of the checks and balances the occupation authority built into transitional political structures here. Officials who voice these concerns include some who are rivals of Dr. Allawi's or who oppose his long-term political ambitions, but they also include people who have worked with him since the formal transfer of sovereignty.

Under Dr. Allawi and John D. Negroponte, the American ambassador, who wields extensive behind-the-scenes power, the Americans and Iraqis have taken care to keep their disputes hidden. But in recent weeks, Dr. Allawi has taken a number of steps, these Iraqi and American officials say, that have suggested that he may harbor ambitions to mold the government into an instrument of his personal will, curbing dissent and increasing the influence of the Iraqi National Accord.

Last week, Dr. Allawi dismissed Mowaffak al-Rubaie, his national security adviser, after disagreements over how to confront Moktada al Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric. While Dr. Rubaie favored a strategy aimed at coaxing Mr. Sadr's men into the political mainstream, Dr. Allawi insisted on military force.

Iraqi and American officials cite other examples. Asked by Iraqi and American commanders to nominate a list of officers for more than two dozen command posts in the Iraqi armed forces, Dr. Allawi put forward a list drawn entirely from his own political party, according to a knowledgeable Iraqi source who is an opponent of Dr. Allawi's. Senior American officers say care will be taken to see that appointments are not made by political favor.

The stage for a political tug of war over the tribunal was set when Salem Chalabi was chosen for his post by L. Paul Bremer III, chief of the American occupation authority that dissolved in June. Mr. Chalabi is a nephew of Ahmad Chalabi, the exile leader who worked for years to encourage an American military overthrow of Mr. Hussein. Mr. Bremer endorsed Salem Chalabi's appointment earlier this year. Ahmad Chalabi was favored by the Pentagon to be Iraq's first post-Hussein president, but has since fallen from American favor.

The Chalabi appointment stirred immediate controversy. The tribunal was already under fire from experts who urged the United States to rely on an international court, like the one trying Slobodan Milosevic and other leaders from the former Yugoslavia. These experts said Salem Chalabi, in his late 30's, lacked legal experience, and that his ties to his uncle gave the tribunal added political taint.

With a $75 million budget from the United States and a team of international legal experts, the tribunal, working from offices in the American command compound in Baghdad, has been sifting through tons of documents and witness statements. Its most public moment came on July 1, when Mr. Hussein and 11 of his top associates appeared in a temporary courtroom on an American military base near Baghdad airport to be informed that they were under investigation for crimes against humanity, and to be apprised of their legal rights. Shortly after, a judge from Iraq's Central Criminal Court, with links to senior officials in the Allawi government, issued warrants for both Ahmad and Salem Chalabi while they were outside Iraq - Ahmad for currency fraud, and Salem for involvement in the murder of a Finance Ministry official involved in an investigation of the Chalabi family's business dealings.

Both called the warrants part of an Allawi government vendetta, and both have returned to Iraq. Ahmad Chalabi resumed his political activities, seeking allies for a challenge to Dr. Allawi in the January elections. Salem Chalabi remained out of Iraq until last week, when he made a brief trip to Baghdad, met with the judge who issued the arrest warrant, then returned to London. Dr. Allawi and other officials said after he left that Salem Chalabi had resigned, a claim that Mr. Chalabi dismissed in his e-mail message on Thursday.

"The interim Iraqi government has resorted to the use of illegal means to try to remove me and take political control of the tribunal," he said. "My insistence on the independence of the tribunal was proving inconvenient for the secret policy of the government to grant amnesty or otherwise work out deals with senior Baathists inside and outside Iraq.

"Several of these Baathists are concerned about their possible indictment; accordingly, the interim government has moved to take control of the tribunal to quash any potential indictments."

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