Confusion rippled around the court trying Saddam Hussein yesterday after the chief judge made clear he wanted to step down, casting an already turbulent process into further disarray.
"He wants to withdraw," a source close to Judge Rizgar Amin told Reuters 10 days before the next hearing due on January 24.
"He will oversee the next sitting and then announce his reasons for withdrawing," the source said late on Friday.
Asked why the Kurdish judge, based in the northern city of Sulaimaniya, wanted to pull out of a trial that has made his face familiar around the world during long days of television coverage, he would say only: "It is too difficult."
It was unclear whether Amin was leaving open the possibility of changing his mind or if he was seeking changes in the handling of the trial in return for staying on the bench.
Spokesmen for the Iraqi High Tribunal were not available for comment on a weekend following the week's Eid al-Adha holiday.
One official working with the court which is trying the former Iraqi leader and seven others for crimes against humanity said: "We hadn't heard this. We just don't know what's going on." "I'm surprised," said one Baghdad lawyer acting for Saddam's defense team. He questioned whether Amin would indeed quit.
The killing of two defense lawyers has highlighted problems with the process in a country mired in a virtual civil war that pits Saddam's fellow minority Sunni Arabs against a U.S.-sponsored government run by Shi'ite Muslims and ethnic Kurds intent on hanging a man they say massacred their peoples.
The Iraqi government has accused the former president's Baath party sympathisers in the insurgency of killing the defense attorneys in a bid to discredit the trial process as well as of threatening witnesses and court officials; the defense in turn accuses pro-government militias of targeting them. Kidnapping and murder have become commonplace and human rights groups have questioned the wisdom of pushing ahead with a trial in Baghdad rather than an international process in The Hague or elsewhere. Washington opposes the new International Criminal Court and Iraq's leaders are keen to try Saddam and his aides at home, where, unlike abroad, they face the death penalty.
There is already a precedent in the trial, which opened on October 19, for replacing one of the panel of five judges, so in principle Amin's departure may cause little upset; a judge quit to avoid a potential conflict of interest over one of the eight defendants' alleged role in the death of a relative.
But in practice, the resignation of the most visible face of the court outside of the dock may be an embarrassment for the Iraqi government and U.S. officials keen to show the world that Iraqis are capable of giving the ex-leader a fair trial.