In the face of criticism of his handling of the case, Rizkar Mohammed Amin, the chief judge on the Iraqi High Tribunal, handed in his notice to quit on 10 January, according to an official close to the court.

Speaking anonymously, the official said: "Efforts are underway to try to get him to change his mind," adding that the resignation had not yet been accepted.

While the trial has taken up only seven court days since it started on 19 October, Amin has come under pressure at home and abroad for allowing what critics see as theatrics by the defence counsels and the accused.

If his resignation were accepted, Amin would be the second judge on the five-strong panel trying Saddam and seven former aides to quit since the trial began.

A spokeswoman for the office of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is currently out of the country, confirmed that his chief of staff received Amin's letter of resignation a few days ago.

Fear of reprisal

Several other judges from the tribunal travelled to Amin's home city of Sulaimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan on Saturday in an attempt to persuade him to reconsider, said a source close to the Kurdish judge, also on condition of anonymity.

Amin is the only judge in the Saddam trial who has allowed himself to be identified in court. The other four remain anonymous for fear of reprisals for taking part in the high-profile case.

Two defence lawyers were shot and killed shortly after the opening of the trial.

The official close to the tribunal said Amin wanted to step down because of strong criticism by politicians at the way he had allowed the former president and his seven co-defendants to speak out in court and disrupt proceedings.

Critics say Saddam Hussein has
got away with theatrics in court

But supporters of Amin say he has sought to give the defendants, who face a possible death penalty, as much leeway as possible in an effort to ensure that the process is seen as fair.

Khalil al-Dulaimi, Saddam's leading counsel, welcomed the news of Amin's resignation offer, but said it made no difference to the case as the defence team considered the court illegal.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 24 January.

In other developments, Iraq's Justice Ministry said 509 detainees were being released on Sunday after being cleared of terror-related charges. They include two local journalists from Reuters.

There are currently about 10,000 detainees in Iraq.

Meanwhile, a US marine was found dead on Saturday on a base in western Iraq, "from an apparent non-hostile gunshot wound," the military said.