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Hussein talks to defense lawyer

BAGHDAD -- Saddam Hussein met with a defense lawyer yesterday for the first time since his capture a year ago, days before several of his top aides are due to appear in court for hearings on alleged war crimes.

The unidentified attorney spent four hours with the 67-year-old former dictator at Hussein's undisclosed detention site, said his chief lawyer, Ziad al-Khasawneh.

"He was in good health and his morale was high and very strong," Khasawneh said. "He looked much better than his earlier public appearance when he was arraigned a few months ago."

The Iraqi interim government's push to get the trials for Hussein's former lieutenants underway before the Jan. 30 national elections has led to dissent even within the Iraqi Cabinet.

"Trials as symbolic as those against the dignitaries of the former regime should only start after the establishment of an Iraqi government with ballot-box legitimacy," Iraqi Justice Minister Malik Dohan al-Hassan told the Geneva daily newspaper Le Temps.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Tuesday that procedures could begin as early as next week before the Iraqi Special Tribunal.

Hussein will not be among the first to appear in court. But his notorious former right-hand man, Ali Hassan al-Majid -- the ex-general known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons -- is expected to appear along with 11 other former regime members at the initial investigative court hearing next week.

"The cases against his [Hussein's] henchmen are probably less complicated to prove than the cases against him," Stephen Orlofsky, a former federal judge who toured Iraq to assess its judiciary, told CNN.

"There are probably fewer crimes and the evidence may be stronger, and I'm sure the prosecution is hopeful that one or more of them will ultimately cooperate and testify against Saddam," Orlofsky said.

He said Hussein will face a special tribunal of five judges that was created to try war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

In Baghdad, a US military official familiar with the case confirmed Hussein was visited by a lawyer for the first time since being hauled from his "spider hole" on a farm near his hometown of Tikrit on Dec. 13, 2003.

With six weeks of campaigning under way ahead of the crucial vote for a 275-member assembly, interim President Ghazi al-Yawer predicted regional and international interests will spend millions of dollars to influence the balloting -- a statement aimed primarily at Iran and Syria.

"There are many parties, regional and international, who want to serve their own interests and they want to have friends in power in Iraq," Yawer said. "We think that millions of dollars will be spent on the elections process from outside the country. We hope that this will not happen and that the money and the decisions will be Iraqi."

Yawer's comments came a day after Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan accused Iran and Syria of supporting terrorism in Iraq.

Many expect Iraq's raging insurgency to dog the campaign and the election itself, potentially scaring voters from polling stations, a result that would boost charges by opponents of the US-backed government that the polls are illegitimate.

Insurgents yesterday killed 10 people -- including a government official gunned down in the capital and three refugees slain by a rocket attack in northern Iraq.

Unidentified gunmen shot and killed Qassim Mehawi, deputy head of the Communications Ministry, as he went to work in Baghdad, and eight of his bodyguards were injured.

A roadside bomb in western Baghdad damaged an SUV, then gunmen opened fire, killing a foreigner and wounding two others. Their nationalities were not released.

Three Iraqi National Guardsmen died and six others were injured when another roadside bomb blast in western Baghdad targeted their truck.

In Kirkuk, northern Iraq, a rocket slammed into a Kurdish refugee housing compound, killing three refugees and wounding one, police Brigadier General Sarhad Qader said.

Two Kurdish brothers were shot to death in their shop in the predominantly Sunni Arab town of Hawija, 28 miles southwest of Kirkuk. Qader said the killers wrote graffiti on the shop walls saying, "No Kurds in Hawija."

In Ramadi, west of Baghdad, militants told journalists they shot and killed an Italian citizen after he tried to break through a guerrilla roadblock on a highway, purportedly killing one gunman.

An Italian passport and Lebanese residency permit the gunmen displayed identified the man as Salvatore Santoro. A document from the Italian Embassy in Beirut seeking an Iraqi visa for the man called him an aid worker helping Iraqi children.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he was waiting for news on reports that an Italian had been killed.

Related Stories:
 MONITORING ELECTIONS: Annan cites readiness to expand UN aid (Boston Globe)
 MOVING TO TRIAL: Hussein talks to defense lawyer (Boston Globe)
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