BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi judges interrogated the notorious general known as "Chemical Ali" and Saddam's former defense minister Saturday, opening the first phase in trials for the ousted dictator's top deputies. Insurgents, meanwhile, attacked election offices and wounded four American contractors with a roadside bomb.
Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Saddam's last defense chief, and Ali Hassan al-Majid - who earned his nickname for his alleged use of chemical weapons against Kurds and others - were the first of the 11 jailed top figures who, along with Saddam, are facing trial for crimes during the regime's three decades in power.
The two were questioned by a panel of investigative judges in a hearing attended by their lawyers, said Raad al-Juhyi, the head of the panel. The hearing was closed to the press.
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Tuesday that detained leaders of Saddam's toppled regime would start appearing before court in the coming week - pressing ahead with the trials ahead of crucial national elections set for Jan. 30.
Many Iraqis - particularly among the Shiite majority - have been eager to see the prosecution of the ousted regime begin. The trials and elections come amid persistent violence by insurgents, including suspected former Saddam followers, that has raised concern over the success of the vote.
Mortars fired by insurgents landed near a center for Iraqis to register to vote in the town of Dujail, 50 miles north of the capital, on Saturday, killing one civilian and wounding eight others, said Master Sgt. Robert Powell, of the Tikrit-based U.S. 1st Infantry Division.
Gunmen opened fire in another election center in Riyadh, a town southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, on Friday evening, Kirkuk police said.
Iraq's insurgency appears to be consolidating in northern Iraq following intensive U.S.-led military operations in central and western Iraq aimed at uprooting militants, comprising mainly Islamic extremists and loyalists of the deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein loyalists.
Gunmen killed two men, apparently Iraqis, in execution-style slayings in the northern town of Beiji, police Capt. Hakim Ali said Saturday. The men's bodies were found, one with his hands tied behind his back.
Also near Beiji, a roadside bomb exploded, wounding four American contractors employed by Florida-based Cochise Security Inc to dispose of Saddam-era munitions in the area. Two of the wounded were hospitalized. Three Cochise employees were killed in two separate April attacks in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad.
The Special Tribunal trying the former regime figures has said the investigative hearings are the first step of the trial process for Saddam and his deputies.
The judges interrogating the ex-regime leaders are expected to gather evidence against them before laying formal charges, after which the detainees will face fully fledged trials.
"We should make a distinction between the trial and the investigation," al-Juhyi said. "We are talking about the investigation and Ali Hassan al-Majid has been interrogated about the charges against him. We're in the investigation phase."
Al-Juhyi did not specify the charges that al-Majid faced, but the former general is accused of ordering the 1988 Halabja chemical weapons attacks that killed thousands of Kurds, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and suppressing a 1991 Shiite uprising in southern Iraq.
Ahmad surrendered to U.S. forces in September 2003 at a coalition military base in Mosul, but was not considered to be a war crimes suspect and many had expected that he would be freed after being questioned.
Officials have not said when Saddam will appear before the investigative panel for questioning. Allawi said the defendants could be arraigned in January - just ahead of the elections.
Putting former Baath regime leaders on trial is seen as a crucial step in Iraq's post-Saddam reconstruction, but human rights groups and lawyers for the defendants have raised concerns over the access of legal representatives to the detainees.
Iraq's justice minister has also accused his government of rushing to try the officials, saying the trials should wait until after the Jan. 30 elections.
Meanwhile, an Iraqi militant group calling itself the "Jihad Brigades" claimed responsibility in a video posted on a Web site Saturday for the slaying of two American contractors on Dec. 8. Joseph Wemple, a builder from Orlando, Fla., and his boss, Dale Stoffel, vice president for international development for CLI USA, died in the ambush outside Baghdad. CLI USA is a Pennsylvania-based engineering-construction contractor.
"A group of Jihad Brigades' fighters set a trap on the Taji Camp road for members of the Pentagon and the American intelligence agency, the CIA, and those who had close ties with the American President Bush," a masked man said, sitting at a table and reading from a statement. A masked, armed man stood behind him. The video showed
"Their vehicles were attacked, and we confiscated all their weapons and possessions, including Iraqi antiquities and classified documents," the masked man said. The video showed images of passports and other documents in the two men's names. The claim could not be verified.
Saturday's violence came a day after militants carried out a bloody ambush in Mosul, 90 miles north of Beiji, killing four men, three of whom were believed to be Turkish security personnel attached to the country's embassy in Baghdad. The four bodies, including one that was decapitated, were strewn over the road and pavement near their burning Chevrolet Caprice in western Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.
In another northern city, Kirkuk, American troops shot at a car that sped toward a checkpoint after ignoring orders to stop, military spokesman Master Sgt. Robert Powell said. The car's occupants - a man, two women and a 5-year-old girl - were wounded in the Friday shootings and hospitalized.
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