The move marks the first specific step by the administration of President George Bush towards a resolution of the fate of the ousted Iraqi leader.

Saddam is blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens as well as those of neighbouring countries. Many of the crimes were committed while he was a favourite regional ally of the US and other western powers. 

"We are just literally there as advisers to the Iraqi special tribunals," a justice official said, on condition of anonymity, on Saturday.

"We are joining the other nations of the coalition, the Spanish, the British, the Australians, the Polish, and several others, who are also going to be contributing the same types of personnel."

The first members of the US team, which includes about 50 prosecutors, investigators, legal experts and forensic scientists, were scheduled to leave for Baghdad this weekend.
 
The rest were to join the so-called Regime Crimes Adviser's Office being set up within the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-led occupation government of Iraq, "in the next few weeks," according to the official.
 
The group will comprise specialists from most key branches of the Justice Department, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and regional prosecutors' offices.

Chemical weapons

Charges against Saddam, captured by US troops in December, were likely to include the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish town Halabja in 1988, when as many as 5000 people, mostly civilians, were killed, according to legal experts.

Mass graves have been found
since the start of the war in 2003

He is also accused of ordering summary executions of thousands of Iranian prisoners during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, forcibly deporting Kurdish and Turkmen families he deemed disloyal to southern Iraq and creating 900,000 internally displaced citizens throughout the country.

Mass graves discovered in Iraq since the beginning of the war a year ago are likely to contain the bodies of as many as 300,000 victims of the regime, the US State Department estimates.

Saddam's "security forces routinely tortured, beat, raped, and otherwise abused detainees," the department said in its most recent reports on human rights.

However, the justice official declined to speculate on when the trial of Saddam was likely to begin, saying that this would be "up to the Iraqis".

Chemical Ali
 
The team will advise members of the Iraqi government on a range of technical legal issues, including how to gather evidence, ready it for trial, and how to prepare testimony, the official said.

Ali Hasan al-Majid is seen as the
'brain' behind Halabja massacre

"This is a nation that has not had any kind of legitimate legal system similar to the West and other democracies," the official pointed out.
 
Saddam, however, may not be the first member of the deposed regime to be put on trial for crimes of genocide and other atrocities.

Salim Chalabi, an Iraqi lawyer in charge of war crimes issues, told the New York Times a lower-ranking official was likely to face justice first because his conviction would make it easier to successfully prosecute Saddam himself.
 
Ali Hasan al-Majid, or Chemical Ali as he was nicknamed by the western media, a Saddam cousin accused of being the main organiser of the Halabja massacre, was taken into US custody in August and is seen as the prime candidate to be among the first to face a genocide tribunal. 

Two months ago, the US came under fire from international rights body, Human Rights Watch, for its invasion and occupation of Iraq, saying "there were no ongoing human rights violations on a scale which could justify the US-led invasion". 

Although Saddam Hussein had an atrocious human rights record, his worst actions occurred long before the war and there was no ongoing or imminent mass killing in Iraq when the conflict began, the advocacy group said.

Saddam's rights violations, such as the Halabja massacre, were carried out with the support of US and other western powers.