BAGHDAD, (Agencies) – A court trying Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity could delay its verdict by a few days, the chief prosecutor said on Sunday, in a move that would shift the announcement until after U.S. midterm elections.
The U.S.-backed court had been due to deliver a verdict on November 5, two days before U.S. elections in which President George W. Bush’s Republicans fear they could lose control of Congress.
The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Moussawi, said the Iraqi High Tribunal was still working on the judgment. “We will know a day or two before the trial if they are ready to announce the verdict,” Moussawi told Reuters.
Saddam could go to the gallows if he is found guilty over his role in the killing of 148 Shi’ite Muslims in the village of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt.
A guilty verdict could reflect positively on Bush as a vindication of his policy to overthrow Saddam in 2003. Saddam is also on trial separately on charges of genocide against the country’s ethnic Kurds in the late 1980s.
U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad denied Washington had any say over the timing of the verdict or the court’s decisions, saying the American role was limited to logistics and security.
“The United States had nothing to do with the selection of the date and we don’t know whether the judges have come to a judgment or not,” Khalilzad told CNN in an interview.
News of the possible delay follows a week of public spats between U.S. officials and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Maliki’s aides say he is furious at U.S. pressure on him ahead of the elections as the American public turns increasingly away from Bush’s Iraq policy.
At a video conference on Saturday, Bush promised to expedite training for Iraq’s security forces, one of Maliki’s main demands, so they could take over from 140,000 U.S. troops.
“There are no strains in the relationship,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said after Bush and Maliki spoke. “The president is very happy … with the way the prime minister is working.”
So far 99 U.S. troops have died in Iraq in October, the bloodiest month since January 2005. Hundreds of Iraqis are killed every week in sectarian and al Qaeda-inspired attacks.
Maliki told Reuters on Thursday he could bring order in six months, half the time U.S. generals estimate, if troops were better trained and armed. He blamed U.S. policy for the turmoil and demanded more power to command his own forces.
Washington has been pressing Maliki, a Shi’ite Muslim, to crack down on militias linked to Shi’ite political groups whose support Maliki relies on in parliament.
In turn, Maliki and his fellow Shi’ite Islamist leaders are concerned at what they see as a rapprochement between Washington and the Sunni minority dominant under Saddam.
A senior Shi’ite cleric accused U.S. forces of deliberately allowing Sunni insurgents from west Baghdad to kidnap Shi’ites.
Mahmoud Sudani told Reuters gunmen from the Furat district had kidnapped and killed two Shi’ites from the adjacent Jihad neighbourhood. “We found their bodies today,” he said. “Furat is under American control so the government cannot do anything for us. I hold the Americans responsible for the killings.”
Interior Ministry sources said Baghdad police found 25 bodies, most victims of torture, in the past day.
The U.S. military said 17 insurgents were killed in an overnight battle near Balad, 80 km (50 miles) north of the capital. Aircraft from the U.S.-led Coalition attacked two groups of rebels, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns as they lay in ambush, the military said.
More than 20 other killings were also reported on Sunday, including of a woman sports presenter from Iraqi state television.
Elsewhere in Iraq, gunmen ambushed a minibus carrying police translators, trainers and cleaning workers from a police academy to the southern city of Basra, killing 17 people, a police source said.
The minibus was taking them from a police academy under the supervision of British forces in a town 12 km (8 miles) from Basra.