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Former Regime Members in Iraq Appear Before Judge

The former defense minister of Iraq, and the man accused of gassing thousands of Kurds in the 1980s were brought before an Iraqi magistrate Saturday for an investigative hearing to determine if there is enough evidence against them to put them on trial.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," appeared before an Iraqi magistrate Saturday in the first step of a process that will determine if he will face war crimes charges. He is believed to have been responsible for the gassing of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s. He is a cousin of Saddam Hussein.

The former defense minister of Iraq, General Sultan Hashim Ahmad, also appeared before the panel of investigative judges.

The chief investigating judge said both men were accompanied by their lawyers in what was a closed-door interrogation. Attorneys for the defendants had complained they had not had access to their clients.

The hearings are a preliminary step in what is expected to be a lengthy process of possibly trying a total of 12 defendants, including Saddam Hussein.

According to a senior government official with the Interior Ministry, audio and videotapes will be part of the evidence presented against some of the defendants, including Ali Hassan al-Majid.

The same official, who asked not to be identified, said actual trials would not begin anytime soon. He said Iraq is still working out the details of its legal system.

A special war crimes tribunal has been established to try former members of the old regime. Those trials are considered by many Iraqis as crucial and necessary in the process of healing, following 35-years of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced on Tuesday that the trials would soon begin. He made the announcement one day before campaigning official began for national elections scheduled for January 30.

Mr. Allawi is seeking a position in the 275-seat interim national assembly, and many political opponents accused the prime minister of using the announcement of the trials as a way to gain political advantage.

There are more than 200 political parties vying for seats in the national assembly, which will be responsible for writing a new constitution.