The Iraqi government says former dictator Saddam Hussein and several of his closest aides will face trial next month, right after the country holds a national referendum on the new constitution.
Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba told reporters Sunday that the first trial session will take place on October 19, four days after Iraqis go to the polls to vote on the draft charter.
In addition to Saddam Hussein, Mr. Kubba says seven others will be tried by Iraq's special tribunal. The men include former vice president Taha Yassain Ramadan, former Ba'ath Party intelligence chief and Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti, and Awad Ahmad al-Bandar, a former deputy chief in Saddam's cabinet.
Saddam and his aides face charges in connection with the 1982 massacre of 143 Shi'ite Muslims in Dujail, a rural community 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. The mass killings took place after a plot to assassinate Saddam was uncovered there.
The government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari says the special tribunal has enough evidence to ensure that Saddam and his men receive death sentences in the case. Saddam Hussein is also expected to face similar trials for other atrocities, including using chemical weapons against Kurds in the late 1980s and brutally suppressing a Shi'ite rebellion that followed the first Gulf War in 1991.
The 68-year-old former Iraqi dictator has been in U.S. custody since his capture by American troops in December, 2003. U.S. officials have privately cautioned the Iraqi government about rushing into a trial, saying Iraq must first develop a good court and judicial system, which has legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
Meanwhile, a leading Shi'ite member of Iraq's National Assembly tells VOA that he has received assurances from radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that he will not interfere in the crucial October 15 referendum on the draft constitution.
Assembly member Ali al-Dabbagh says he met Moqtada al-Sadr for several hours on Saturday in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf. "Moqtada al-Sadr is a very important element in the future of Iraq. His movement wants to be positive in the political process and they are supporting the constitution," he said.
The fiery cleric has criticized portions of the constitution, saying it is not strong enough in excluding Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party members from Iraqi government and society.
Mr. Sadr has also rejected the constitution's call for creating an oil-rich semi-autonomous Shi'ite zone in the south.
Like Sunni Arabs, who fear the encroachment of neighboring Iran in Iraqi affairs, Mr. Sadr has said that he would never accept a constitution which divided the country. His stance led to a bitter clash two weeks ago in Najaf and other southern towns, pitting Sadr militia members against forces loyal to powerful Shi'ite leaders in government, who strongly endorse a federalist arrangement for the south.
The Shi'ite assembly member, Mr. Dabbagh, declined to say why Mr. Sadr now appears willing to support the draft constitution.