BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi police arrested eight Sunni Arabs in the northern city of Kirkuk for allegedly plotting to assassinate the investigating judge who prepared the case against Saddam Hussein, a senior police commander said Sunday. The announcement came as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark arrived in Baghdad, airport officials said, apparently to aid in Saddam’s defense.
Clark has been advising nearly a dozen international lawyers on Saddam’s defense team. He has contended that Saddam’s rights have been violated in the legal process following his capture. But a U.S. government official close to the court said the defense team had not filed the proper paperwork to have a non-Iraqi lawyer in the courtroom.
The men who were arrested for plotting to kill the judge were carrying a document from former top Saddam deputy Izzat al-Douri ordering them to kill Raed Juhi, said Col. Anwar Qadir, a police commander in Kirkuk, where the men were arrested Saturday.
Al-Douri is the highest ranking member of the Saddam regime still at large and is believed to be at least the symbolic leader of Saddam loyalists still fighting U.S. forces and the new government in
The arrest came two days before Saddam’s trial resumes after a five-week break.
The first prosecution witnesses are expected to testify before the five-judge panel, offering accounts of the deaths of more than 140 Shiite villagers following an assassination attempt against Saddam in the town of Dujail in 1982.
If convicted, Saddam and his seven co-defendants could be sentenced to death by hanging.
Security concerns prompted the defense team to threaten a boycott of Monday’s session after two members were slain in separate attacks after the trial opened Oct. 19. The U.S. official, who requested anonymity in return for providing the information, also said no request by a member of the defense team for security has been denied.
Attorneys for each defendant agreed to appear Monday, and the trial is expected to proceed as scheduled, the official added.
The chief trial judge said in remarks released Sunday in Germany that he has considered whether the court should move to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq because of poor security in the capital.
“So far, the situation allows regular and fair proceedings of the court, even if the conditions are admittedly difficult,” Rizgar Mohammed Amin was quoted as saying in the German news weekly Focus.
“I have already thought about whether one shouldn’t move the court to the Kurdish areas, where the situation is quieter and more security would be assured.”
The interview will be published Monday.
On Saturday, a U.S. Marine died when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near Camp Taqaddum, 45 miles west of Baghdad, the U.S. command said. A statement said the Marine was assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
The latest death raised the number of U.S. service members to die since the Iraq war started in March 2003 to at least 2,106, according to an Associated Press count.
Before dawn Sunday, about 350 Iraqi soldiers in 50 vehicles carried out an operation in a Sunni Muslim area south of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. A similar operation two weeks ago brought national protests from Sunni leaders.
Iraqi army Maj. Karim Al-Zihayri said 15 people were arrested on suspicion of planting roadside bombs, attacking checkpoints, kidnapping and theft. The troops did not meet any resistance, he added.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned of an increase in insurgent attacks ahead of the Dec. 15 elections, in which voters will choose the first fully constitutional parliament since Saddam’s regime was ousted in April 2003.
American authorities hope for a big Sunni Arab turnout, which could produce a government that would win the trust of the religious community that forms the backbone of the insurgency.
President Jalal Talabani said Sunday that insurgent groups have responded to his call for talks and have contacted his office.
“We are receiving calls from groups who claim to be from the resistance and they are expressing their support for meetings” with the government, Talabani told reporters. “We want to convince every sincere Iraqi who is carrying arms to come and participate in the political process.”
Talabani did not name the groups that contacted his office, but residents of Anbar province said Thursday that four insurgent groups active in that area are conferring among themselves to choose a representative to meet government officials.
In an interview published in London on Sunday, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told The Observer newspaper that human rights abuses in Iraq are now as bad as they were under Saddam.
“People are doing the same as Saddam’s time and worse,” he was quoted as saying. “It is an appropriate comparison.”
Allawi accused fellow Shiites in the government of being responsible for death squads and secret torture centers.
“These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same thing,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
For months, Sunni Arabs have been accusing the Interior Ministry of wholesale arrests and abuse of Sunnis in an attempt to find a handful of rebels. The discovery by U.S. troops this month of up to 173 detainees — malnourished and some showing signs of torture — hidden in an Interior Ministry building in central Baghdad gave credence to those charges.
The Iraqi government has set up a committee that is investigating the case, but Talabani told reporters Sunday he did not believe there was a serious problem.
“I believe there is exaggeration, but every incident should be investigated,” he said.
In Baghdad on Sunday, a group of women protested outside the Interior Ministry building, demanding information about relatives taken by security forces and never heard from again.
“What have they done wrong?” asked one woman, who identified herself only as Um Nabeel. “Let the government tell us where they are. If they were killed let them tell us where their bodies are.”