BAGHDAD (AFP) -The trial of Iraq”s former dictator Saddam Hussein will open in the second half of October, an official said, as sectarian tension rose in the aftermath of a deadly stampede that killed nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that Saddam”s trial "will begin in the second half of October", after the referendum on the constitution takes place on October 15.
There was no official word from the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which is tasked with trying Saddam and his henchmen, and it was not known how long this first trial would last.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal said in July he would first face charges related to the 1982 killing of 143 residents of the village of Dujail, northeast of Baghdad, where he had been the target of a failed assassination bid.
But Saddam is also expected to face separate trials on further counts of crimes against humanity, particularly with regard to the gassing of Kurds and the mass killings of Shiites in the south of the country.
Saddam who was ousted in April 2003 and captured by US forces in December of that year, could face the death penalty if found guilty.
The announcement of Saddam”s trial comes against a backdrop of heated sectarian tension between Sunni Arabs, the once dominant community under the ousted president, and majority Shiites who control the government.
Fueling fears of a new round of tit-for-tat sectarian killings between the two communities, one man was killed and four wounded as Sunni worshippers came under fire outside two mosques near the mainly Shiite southern city of Basra, according to a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the main Sunni group.
Top government officials have blamed Sunni-backed insurgents for triggering Wednesday”s mass stampede on a Baghdad bridge which led to nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims being trampled to death or drowning in the Tigris River. Over 800 were wounded.
The stampede reportedly started after someone shouted that suicide bombers were about to strike.
Meanwhile, as families continued to bury stampede victims, Shiite leaders appeared divided over the response to the disaster.
Top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called on the community to remain calm, his aides said.
"We could have retaliated against the terrorists, but we do not want to be dragged into a sectarian war," said Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, Sistani”s representative in the Shiite town of Karbala, 110 kilometers (70 miles) south of Baghdad.
"Not responding is not out of weakness. It reflects wisdom," he added.
But there were also some angry statements by other Shiite imams against both rebels and government officials, who were accused of negligence and failure to ensure proper protection for the mass pilgrimage.
"I accuse the ministries of defense and interior of harboring Baathist cadres (Saddam Hussein”s disbanded party). I demand the dismissal of weak ministers," Sheikh Abdul Zahra al-Sowaidi, from the Sadr movement, told worshippers in Baghdad”s Sadr City district.
Radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who led Friday prayers in the holy town of Kufa for the first time in nearly a year, for his part preached against the United States which he accused of seeking to dominate the world.
The United States "might claim to control the world, but it cannot control the minds," he said.
Sadr”s militants revolted against US forces a year ago in Najaf.
Some of his supporters came to prayer wrapped in a white shroud to symbolise their willingness to "die as martyrs" while carrying a sprig olive branch to signify their desire for peace.
Divers continued the grim task of trying to bring bodies to the surface as two river police boats also attempted to stir up the waters and release bodies still held in the mud, an AFP correspondent said.
Over 200 people searching for loved ones waited on the river bank. Koranic verses were recited and broadcast through a loud speaker as black-cloaked women wailed.
In separate incidents, the US military announced that three soldiers were killed in rebel attacks Wednesday and Thursday, bringing US military losses in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to at least 1,877 according to an AFP toll based on Pentagon figures.
Meanwhile, seven Iraqis, including two members of the security forces, were killed in several rebel attacks across Iraq, security sources said.