"That is certainly not true," a member of the tribunal's media office said. "It will start on October 19."

A source close to Saddam's legal team said on Thursday that they expected to be in court on October 19.

However, it is possible that any initial hearings could be quickly followed by a lengthy adjournment.

The tribunal, set up during the US occupation in 2003 to try members of the former regime, issued a statement confirming the start date this week, although it said it had the right to delay it if there were "good reasons".

High-profile trial

A senior British official, speaking to reporters in London, said the long-awaited, high-profile trial might have to be put off until after elections in December because essential preparations would not be ready in time.

"There's every chance that 19 October will be a pretty low-key event and there'll immediately be some sort of adjournment"

Court source

"It's the physical logistics of having a trial - getting things built and various bits and pieces of where the witnesses are going to sit," another British official said of the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Britain, which like the United States is intimately involved in the post-war administration of Iraq, has provided training to Iraqi judges on the tribunal.

People who this week visited the courtroom, inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, said it looked far from ready, with benches for the defendants and the prosecution yet to be installed, and no bullet proof screens for witnesses.

Short sessions

While the judges involved in the case have said they are keen to proceed on time, sources close to the tribunal have hinted that even if something happens on 19 October, it is more likely to be a short session for judges to hear motions for a delay, rather than the blockbuster beginning of a trial.

"There's every chance that 19 October will be a pretty low-key event and there'll immediately be some sort of adjournment," one source said late last month.

Saddam's main lawyer, Khaleel Dulaimi, has made it clear he intends to seek a postponement because he says he has not had enough time to study the evidence against his client. Iraqi officials say he has had sufficient time under Iraqi law.

Dulaimi has also said in the past that he intends to challenge the legitimacy of the court because it was initially set up with US funding under US occupation.

Crimes against humanity

Talabani says the Iraqi resistance
is negotiating for Saddam's life

If the trial goes ahead, Saddam and six co-defendants will be tried for crimes against humanity in connection with the deaths of 143 Shia men from the village of Dujail following a failed attempt on the former president's life in 1982.

While one of the more minor crimes of which he is accused, prosecutors are starting with the Dujail case because they say they have strong evidence, including testimony from Saddam aides, and are therefore more hopeful of securing a conviction.

If Saddam is convicted, he could face the death penalty, and under Iraqi law would be put to death by hanging.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a lawyer who opposes the death penalty, said in comments published on Thursday that
Saddam's supporters in the resistance were trying to negotiate to have his life spared in exchange for putting down their guns.

"The Saddamists are trying now to negotiate with the Americans on stopping their operations in exchange for not executing Saddam in the trial which is about to start," Talabani told Egypt's al-Ahram newspaper.