Saddam verdict date 'rigged' for Bush

Saddam Hussein's defence team has urged a delay of his possible death sentence and said the ousted Iraqi leader believed today's expected verdict was timed to boost President George Bush before US mid-term elections.

Saddam's lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi repeated warnings that a death sentence against his client - which would come before Tuesday's US Congressional elections at a time when Bush faces mounting criticism over the Iraq war - would plunge the region into wider bloodshed.

"We have requested at least a two-month adjournment to allow us to complete our presentations in the case in which our defence rights have been violated and in which our clients have been denied full legal defence," he said. US officials deny that Washington has any say over the timing of the verdict or the court's decisions, saying the American role was limited to logistics and security.

"This court is a creature of the US military occupation, and the Iraqi court is just a tool and rubber stamp of the invaders," insisted Dulaimi.

"The trial of the president should not proceed this way in a climate of mounting political pressure for a quick conviction that demolishes the trial's impartiality," he said.

The credibility of the trial had been tarnished by delays, the murder of defence counsel, courtroom chaos and political interference and court bias against the defence, he added.

"During all these months, the court has deliberately sought to limit our access and ability to defend the president ... this means that justice has not been done," he said.

Saddam, 69, and seven co-accused have been charged with crimes against humanity for the killing of 148 Shi'ite villagers after an attempt on Saddam's life in the town of Dujail in 1982.

Michael Scharf, a law professor who has trained judges and prosecutors in the Dujail case, said the trial, despite flaws, is one of the most important war crimes proceedings since the Nuremberg trials against top Nazis at the end of World War II.

Dulaimi said the verdict was timed to boost President George W Bush before US mid-term elections on November 7 and urged a delay.

Proceedings in the heavily fortified Baghdad courtroom have taken place against a backdrop of sectarian violence. Defence counsel, dominated by Saddam's fellow Sunnis, blamed Shi'ite gunmen for their colleagues' deaths. The first chief judge, a Kurd, resigned to protest government meddling.

Far from being a catharsis for Iraqis scarred by Saddam's rule, the trial, many feel, has deepened animosities between communities. Some legal experts say it should have been held in a third country. Dulaimi has warned that a death sentence against Saddam, held in a US-run prison, would plunge Iraq into full-scale civil war.

Security in the Green Zone, the courtroom's venue, has been tightened ahead of the verdict, which officials say should be announced today. The Defence Ministry said the army had cancelled all leave and put troops on alert.

As Bush faces mounting criticism over the war, a guilty verdict two days ahead of tight US Congressional polls could be a vindication of his policy to overthrow Saddam.

In a recent briefing, a US official close to the court said the trial against Saddam was historically more significant than those against former strongmen such as Slobodan Milosevic.


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