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Saddam Hussein Faces Mass Murder Trial

Iraq's long-time dictator Saddam Hussein is to go on trial Wednesday for mass murder, the first of what is expected to be several indictments of the deposed president and senior officials of his regime. The tribunal is seen as fulfilling aspirations for justice of thousands of Iraqis who lost family members under the regime. But it is also causing apprehension among some, who fear that it will only worsen the violence that has been the legacy of the war to depose Saddam.

The trial of Saddam Hussein is being seen by many Iraqis as the long overdue hand of justice after decades of suffering. And some see the event as a possible warning to other authoritarian figures in the region.

But many analysts fear that the process will only deepen the divisions in Iraqi society and fuel the violence that has killed thousands of people in recent years.

They worry that the trial will especially alienate Sunni Arabs, who dominated government under Saddam, but have since been relegated to a minor role. Sunnis boycotted legislative elections nine months ago, which were won by the Shiite Arab majority and independence-minded Kurds.

The head of Amman's Jerusalem Center for Political Studies, Ureib Rantawai, says the trial, coming at this time, will only aggravate the Iraqi crisis.

"It will increase the anger," he said. "It will raise the instability in Iraq. It will help the extremists to use this trial in order to justify what they are doing nowadays in Iraq."

Saddam Hussein and seven subordinates are to appear Wednesday under tight security before a special tribunal of five Iraqi judges. They are charged with ordering the mass murder of 140 villagers from Dujail, north of Baghdad, after a failed assassination attempt 23 years ago. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

But Saddam's lawyers say they will ask for a postponement in order to better prepare their defense.

Legal experts say that the Dujail massacre is one of the lesser atrocities committed by the Saddam regime. They say the former leader could also be tried for the gassing of five thousand Kurds in 1988, the deaths of thousands of Shiites following an uprising in 1991, and hundreds of thousands of deaths during the Iran-Iraq war. They say the Dujail incident is well documented and therefore can help establish a model for subsequent trials.

Analysts warn the trial could turn Saddam into a victim in the eyes of some people, especially Arab Sunnis. As a result, they say the proceedings must be well run.

"It should be a fair trial. It should be a just trial. It should be an open one. Transparency, I think, is a very, very important issue," added analyst Ureib Rantawi. "Otherwise, it will be identified by part of the Iraqis as part of the conspiracy led by the Americans on [against] their country."

But international human-rights organizations have voiced concerns, saying that some of the rules governing the trial do not meet international standards. They say the defense must not be restricted and guilt must be proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Iraqi officials and their international advisors say such measures are in place and the trial will be fair.