Saddam, his half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and five former Baath party allies face the death sentence if found guilty of crimes against humanity for the killing of 148 Shias in the village of Dujail in 1982.

 

In a new setback to the US-backed trial, gunmen last month killed Khamis al-Obaidi, Saddam's deputy chief lawyer, after kidnapping him from his Baghdad home, the third defence attorney to be killed since the tumultuous trial opened in October.

 

"Defence lawyers might ask the judge to adjourn the trial for a few days," a court official told Reuters on Sunday.

 

"They are saying that the killing of Obaidi has disrupted their work to prepare their final arguments and prosecutors might agree to this."

 

The prosecution has demanded the death penalty for Saddam and three of his former senior aides for their roles in the killings, torture and executions that followed an attempt on the Iraqi leader's life in Dujail.

 

Khalil al-Dulaimi, the chief lawyer, who has blamed pro-government Shia militias for the killing of his deputy, said last month they were considering boycott of Monday's session.

 

Death sentence

 

Once final statements are in, a five-judge panel is expected to adjourn to consider a verdict. Officials close to the court say a verdict on Dujail can come as early as September.

 

A death sentence might be delayed by appeals and the many cases the toppled leader, who is being held in a US-run prison, is likely to face for crimes during his Sunni dominated rule against mostly Shias and Kurds now in power.

 

Saddam and his former top army commanders will go on a separate trial on August 21 to face genocide charges stemming from the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in a 1988 military operation to force them from their villages.

 

Seven defendants including Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, or "Chemical Ali", would stand trial in the new case.