BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who has warned that Iraq is on the verge of civil war, arrived in Baghdad on Thursday for what officials have said will be a mission to promote national reconciliation.
League officials have said Moussa is expected to meet Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, President Jalal Talabani and leading Shi”ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on his first visit to Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The 22-member league had not officially announced the timing of his visit for security reasons. When a league delegation went to Iraq this month, gunmen attacked their convoy and killed three of their police escorts.
Moussa”s mission comes at an especially sensitive time for Iraq, which has been plagued by violence as U.S.-backed Iraqi leaders try to advance the political process in a bid to defuse a Sunni Arab insurgency.
An October 15 referendum on a constitution backed by Iraq”s new Shi”ite and Kurdish leaders and fiercely opposed by Arab Sunnis is expected to pass, raising fears of an intensified campaign of suicide bombings and shootings waged by Saddam Hussein loyalists and militants from across the Arab world.
Saddam took the stand on the first day of his high profile trial for crimes against humanity on Wednesday, defying the judge by refusing to state his name and challenging the legitimacy of the court created under U.S. occupation.
Moussa, a veteran Egyptian diplomat, has said there is no clear strategy or leadership to reconcile Iraq”s different communities and that civil war could erupt at any moment.
Arab states such as conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia have warned that Shi”ite Iran has gained wide influence over Iraq and could destabilise the region.
Some Iraqis have criticized the Arab League for neglecting their country, while Arab commentators have said Iraq”s proposed constitution does not emphasize Iraq”s Arab identity enough, something Saddam stressed in his decades in power.
Saddam won a 40-day reprieve to hone his defense after pleading not guilty to crimes against humanity in a court set up in the former regional headquarters of his Baath party.
The three hours of televised courtroom exchanges, during which the ousted Iraqi president harangued the Kurdish judge and tussled with his guards, gripped the nation and the wider world.
Thursday”s newspapers were filled with coverage of Saddam, who was wearing a dark suit and carrying a worn copy of the Koran as he stepped into court to join seven other defendants being tried in connection with the killing of 140 Shi”ites in the village of Dijail in the 1980s.
"The people are victorious over a tyrant," read a front-page banner headline in Al Bayaan newspaper.
A photograph beneath it showed Saddam and the other defendants, including his former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan and feared intelligence chief Barzan al-Tikriti. Another featured a poor Iraqi family huddled on the floor beneath a television watching their former president take the stand.
At least one international legal watchdog welcomed the adjournment to November 28 by Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin as a sign of fairness to a defense that complained it had insufficient time to prepare for the case, which centers on the killing of 148 Shi”ite men after a failed assassination attempt in 1982.
The judge, an ethnic Kurd who has risked revenge attacks by appearing on television to try Saddam, said the court also needed time to persuade witnesses who were "scared" to testify.
With Iraq deeply divided along sectarian and ethnic lines since U.S. troops ousted Saddam in 2003, some have questioned the nation”s ability to mount a fair trial. But the government”s sponsors in Washington see the process as showpiece of their efforts to install a credible, democratic system in Iraq.
During a protest against the trial in Saddam”s home town of Tikrit, Iraqi forces arrested one of Saddam”s nephews who is accused of financing insurgents, national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said.
"Yasser Sabawi was inciting violence and giving money and bribes to the youth to turn a peaceful demonstration into a violent one," Rubaie said.
"He is one of the people who fund terrorism and we believe there is strong evidence that he is one of the channels that brings in funds used to finance the terrorist operations in the north and the northeast of the country."
Unusually, violence eased dramatically during both the constitutional vote and Saddam”s trial. But few Iraqis expect the relative calm to last in a divided country where suicide bombings alone have killed thousands of people.