BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Saddam Hussein could go on trial for crimes against humanity within two months, far earlier than expected, Iraq’s new president, Jalal Talabani, said on Tuesday.
Asked in an interview televised on CNN when Saddam’s trial would begin, Talabani said: “I hope within two months.”
Iraqi prosecutors and their U.S. advisers say a trial is more likely in 2006, after some of Saddam’s lieutenants have been tried, to help build the case against the former dictator.
Iraqi leaders hope that trials of Saddam and his aides will help restore public confidence, sapped by relentless insurgent violence and political bickering that delayed the formation of a cabinet for months.
In Washington, President Bush said that despite mounting casualties in Iraq, “I’m pleased with the progress” being made.
“I am pleased that … there is a democratically elected government in Iraq, there are thousands of Iraqi soldiers trained and better equipped to fight for their own country,” he told a news conference in the White House Rose Garden.
More than 1,600 Americans have been killed since Saddam was ousted in April 2003, 70 of them in May alone. But Bush expressed confidence the Iraqi government would get the situation under control, enabling U.S. troops to pull out.
“And when they’re ready, we’ll come home. And I hope that’s sooner rather than later.”
In the latest losses for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, four Italians, four Americans and an Iraqi were killed in two aircraft crashes, officials said.
A six-seater Iraqi Air Force plane crashed 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Baghdad on Monday, killing four U.S. Air Force personnel and an Iraqi pilot, Iraq’s Defense Ministry said.
A ministry spokesman said he believed the plane came down in a sandstorm. The U.S. military said it was investigating.
Overnight, an Italian military helicopter crashed outside the southern city of Nassiriya as it returned from Kuwait, killing the two pilots and two gunners. The cause of the crash was unknown, but it was believed to be non-hostile.
JAAFARI CONDEMNS ARREST OF SUNNI
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari condemned the arrest by U.S. troops on Monday of senior Sunni politician Mohsen Abdul-Hamid, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
He said he had demanded an explanation from the top American general in Iraq for the 12-hour detention, which the military has said was a mistake.
Relatives of Abdul-Hamid said U.S. troops broke down the door of his family home, ransacked the house and put a hood over his head before carting him and his three sons away.
The arrest threatened to put further strain on relations between Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Shi’ite communities at a time when some have expressed fears of a slide toward civil war.
In his speech to parliament, Jaafari said he hoped a new constitution, due to be drafted by mid-August, would be drawn up on time, but admitted it was a tight deadline. He said improving security, his biggest headache, was a formidable task.
“There are big problems, we don’t claim that we’ll remove all obstacles, but we’ll make a tangible difference in security and public services,” he said.
On Sunday his government launched Operation Lightning, aiming to put 40,000 Iraqi police and soldiers on the streets of Baghdad to hit back at insurgents.
Jaafari said the operation had so far resulted in a large number of arrests of Iraqi and foreign militants and the discovery of several car bomb workshops.
Car bombs are perhaps Iraq’s biggest threat. In May, 140 explosives-laden vehicles detonated across the country, a huge rise from 2004 monthly figures.
Al Qaeda’s network in Iraq, headed by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has claimed responsibility for many of the attacks.
Zarqawi sent a message to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden saying he had suffered only “minor wounds,” denying reports he was seriously hurt, according to an audio tape attributed to him and released on the Internet on Monday.
“I think news has reached your ears … that I was seriously wounded … I would like to assure you and assure Muslims that these are baseless rumors and that my wounds are minor,” said the speaker.
ZARQAWI IN “GOOD HEALTH”
“I am now with the help of God enjoying good health among my brothers and my people in Iraq.” The voice sounded like that of Zarqawi — Washington’s number one enemy in Iraq with a $25 million bounty on his head.
In fresh violence on Tuesday, a truck bomb exploded near an Iraqi military checkpoint in Baquba, killing two soldiers and wounding nine, police and doctors said.
In western Iraq’s violent Anbar province, the kidnapped provincial governor Raja Nawaf was found dead along with his militant captors after a clash with U.S. forces, a government spokesman said.
(Additional reporting by Omar Anwar and Mussab al-Khairalla in Baghdad)