Geert Vanden Wijngaert
Iraqi Justice Minister Abdel Hussein Shandal
updated 6/21/2005 10:35:06 AM ET 2005-06-21T14:35:06

Iraqi’s justice minister said Tuesday that U.S. officials are trying to delay interrogations of Saddam Hussein.

Justice Minister Abdel Hussein Shandal, in Brussels for an international conference on Iraq, also accused the United States of concealing information about the ousted Iraqi leader.

“It seems there are lots of secrets they want to hide,” he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.

“There should be transparency and there should be frankness, but there are secrets that if revealed, won’t be in the interest of many countries,” he said. “Who was helping Saddam all those years?”

Shandal also said Saddam’s trial would be over by the end of the year. “This trial will be accomplished within 2005 — and this will only be in Iraqi courts,” he said.

U.S. worried about rushing trial
American officials have privately urged caution about rushing into a trial, saying the Iraqis need to develop a solid judicial system. They also worry it could interfere with the important constitution writing process and inflame sectarian tensions.

Though Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s Shiite-led government is determined to put Saddam on trial, circumstances may not allow it.

His government earlier this month said Saddam’s trial would be held within two months, but later backtracked. No trial date has been set for Saddam or any of the other former regime officials being held in custody.

Saddam’s trial could be a highly divisive issue in already turbulent Iraq. If court proceedings begin in two months, they will coincide with the crucial process of drafting the constitution. The draft must be finished by mid-August and approved in a referendum two months later, clearing the way for December elections.

Saddam, 68, is still being interrogated, the justice minister said.

“The process requires collecting evidence but the rule of Saddam was for 35 years, and it needs a lot of evidence, a lot of interrogations,” he told The Associated Press.

Tribunal: No trial date
An official at the press office of the Iraqi Special Tribunal that is overseeing the court proceedings in Baghdad stressed it was an independent body and was not bound by the minister’s comments. He said no date had been set for Saddam’s trial.

“The interrogation of Saddam is taking place regularly and almost daily and neither the justice minister, nor the Americans, have anything to do with it because the IST is an independent court,” the official said. “Saddam’s trial will start as soon as the investigation finishes.”

The tribunal in the past has criticized government officials, including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s spokesman, Laith Kuba, for suggesting that a timetable had been set. Kuba said in early June that Saddam’s trial would start in two months.

The tribunal also has sought to stress its independence from the government. “Any date to start the trials belongs to the judges,” the tribunal said in a June 6 statement.

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