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CNN.com May 31, 2005

Talabani: Iraq preparing for Saddam trial

President says ex-dictator to face legal system in 2 months

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former dictator Saddam Hussein could go on trial "within two months," and U.S. troops might begin leaving Iraq in large numbers by the end of 2006, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told a group of international journalists Tuesday.

Addressing CNN's World Report Conference via satellite feed from northern Iraq, Talabani said Iraq "is now doing its best to prepare the grounds" for a court to consider the war crimes claims against Saddam Hussein.

When asked, Talabani did not say if the start of the trial process would include the other men jailed as war crimes suspects. Iraqi officials have said that Saddam would not be the first former government official to go on trial.

Saddam made an appearance last year before a court that was formed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, a U.S.-backed body that no longer exists. He has not appeared before the Iraqi tribunal responsible for handling war crimes.

According to The Associated Press, Saddam's lead attorney, Khalil al-Dulaimi, expressed surprise at Talabani's comment.

"I was not informed officially that they are speeding up the trial, but any way I will check tomorrow, and then I will have a comment," he told the AP.

Talabani said he believes Saddam's regime harbored weapons of mass destruction and used them against Iraqis. Despite the thorough and fruitless search for such material over the past two years, he expressed confidence that they will be found eventually.

"We will in the future, we will search and we will find some kind of chemical weapons and biological weapons," Talabani said.

The longtime leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- an Iraqi political party that seeks independence for Kurdish regions in northern Iraq -- Talabani said he is hopeful that Iraqi forces will be ready to defend their country in 12 to 18 months.

He said that is how much time will be needed to have the new Iraqi army and the Iraq security forces "well-trained and ready to fight terrorism."

In Washington, President Bush told a news conference that Iraq will be able one day to defend itself.

"I think the Iraq government will be up to the task of defeating the insurgents. I think the Iraqi people dealt the insurgents a serious blow when they had the elections [in January]," Bush said.

"I believe that the Iraqi government's going to be plenty capable of dealing with them, and our job is to help train them so that they can."

The Iraqi president said Operation Lightning -- the large-scale, U.S.-Iraqi mission in Baghdad designed to find terrorists and weapons -- is the beginning of the end for the insurgency.

Talabani indicated the progress in Iraq has been hindered by foreign fighters and Iraq's neighbors desire to meddle in Iraq's affairs. He didn't identify the countries in question, saying he didn't want to throw a wedge into the development of better relations with them.

U.S. troops twice have battled insurgents in western Iraq near the Syrian border and some U.S. officials have said Syria isn't doing enough to secure its border.

Talabani said relations with one of Iraq's other neighbors, Iran, have improved. He cited Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's visit from May 17-20 and a phone conversation with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, saying both men offered help to Iraq.

The newly elected Iraqi government is trying to get Sunni Arabs involved in politics and in the military, Talabani said, adding many people who had been hesitant to become involved had changed their minds.

The main goal of Iraq's transitional government is to write a permanent constitution that will be put to voters in a referendum later this year. When the constitution gains approval, a permanent government will be elected.

Right now, Iraq is governed by an interim document called the transitional administrative law. A new constitution could be written faster if it were based on the transitional law, Talabani said.

Talabani also said involving Sunni Arabs in the process of writing a permanent constitution was critical.

Sunni Arabs represent a minority in the Iraqi population -- 20 percent of the more than 26 million Iraqis -- but held the reins of power during Saddam Hussein's regime. Most Sunnis stayed away from the polls during the January 30 elections.

About two weeks ago, Sunni leaders announced they had formed a nationwide political coalition.

The coalition comprises tribal leaders, clerics and other officials. One of the major groups to join the effort is the Association of Muslim Scholars.

According to the GlobalSecurity.org Web site, the association was created after the fall of Saddam Hussein and is the highest Sunni authority in Iraq.

Associated Press contributed to this report.


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