BAGHDAD, Sept. 24 -- The trials of former president Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants likely will not begin this year, a U.S. official here said Friday, contradicting a recent pronouncement from Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, that Hussein's trial could commence as soon as next month.
Allawi has sought to speed up the trials by exhorting judges and investigators to accelerate their work and by replacing the administrator of the special tribunal that will conduct the trials. The prime minister has said he wants the proceedings to begin before national elections, scheduled for January.
But the U.S. official, who is part of team of Americans advising the tribunal, cast doubt on that timetable because of the complexity in proving that Hussein and other top officials ordered soldiers and low-ranking government officials to commit atrocities.
"These are very difficult trials," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "These are command-responsibility cases. . . . You have to follow the chain of command up. It takes time and it takes effort, and it's not self-evident, and there's no way around it. These cases proceed at their own pace."
The official added that the "likelihood of trials in the near future is remote."
In an interview last Sunday with ABC's "This Week" program, Allawi said Hussein and his lieutenants could go on trial as soon as next month. "Roughly speaking, I think October," he said, adding that the evidence of war crimes and other atrocities against the former president was "overwhelming."
Iraqis involved in the tribunal have said it could take more than a year to prepare for trials. First, they said, investigators must gather the necessary evidence, investigating judges must conduct preliminary proceedings and defense attorneys must have an opportunity to meet with the accused. Thus far, none of the defendants has had a chance to consult with an attorney.
Among the changes Allawi has imposed on the tribunal has been the replacement of its administrator, Salem Chalabi, a nephew of Ahmed Chalabi, a long-time political rival of Allawi. Salem Chalabi's replacement is a member of Allawi's political party.
In a scathing statement issued Thursday, Chalabi accused Allawi of manipulating the court for political purposes.
"The interim government is attempting to politicize the Tribunal to such a large extent that I am very worried that the policies of a fair, independent judicial process, inherent in the Statute of the Iraqi Special Tribunal will be shunted aside," Chalabi wrote. "The future of Iraq depends on justice being done and being seen to be done by the Iraqi people. 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."
Chalabi also accused Allawi's government of taking control of the tribunal to quash potential indictments of some former senior members of Hussein's Baath Party. He said his "insistence on the independence of the Tribunal" proved "inconvenient to the secret policy of the interim government to grant amnesty to or otherwise work out deals with senior Baathists inside and outside Iraq."
The U.S. official said he had seen no evidence of political pressure on the tribunal, noting that investigative judges, who are making most of the significant decisions at the moment, are coming to their decisions independently of the tribunal's administrator. "No one from any quarter has pressured us to do anything," the official said.