The complexities of preparing the case against Saddam Hussein became apparent within weeks of Iraq’s special tribunal being set up at the end of last year.

Salem Chalabi, the Western-educated lawyer who runs the tribunal, spoke then of his frustrations at sifting evidence, finding competent, unbiased judges, securing jails and courtrooms and protecting witnesses. He warned it could take two years to bring Saddam to trial.

Now a courthouse and judges have been found and the Iraqis have agreed to let the US military continue to guard Saddam and the other detainees until the Iraqi security forces are up to the job.

But that still leaves several issues unsettled. Saddam’s lawyers have challenged the legitimacy of the court, which was set up by the Iraqi Governing Council, a now disbanded group of advisers appointed by the US occupation authorities.

“The mockery of [the] trial shows there is no democracy,” said Mohammed Rashdan, a Jordanian who heads the international defence team. “They shouldn’t have asked him any questions without a lawyer there.”

Mr Rashdan and other lawyers representing Saddam say they received death threats from the new Iraqi leaders for seeking to defend the former president.

That the tribunal is being run by Mr Chalabi, nephew of one of Iraq’s most vociferous Saddam opponents, Ahmad Chalabi, will also raise questions over neutrality.

Amnesty International has said the statute of the Iraqi special tribunal does not prevent arbitrary arrest or the torture of detainees to extract confessions. It also suggested there was a lack of expertise among Iraqi judges in tackling cases involving human rights and crimes against humanity. Other groups have noted there is no requirement for proof beyond reasonable doubt.

Saddam’s brief appearance, said David Scheffer, a visiting professor at Georgetown University School of Law and former ambassador at large for war crimes issues in the Clinton administration, “showed that it is going to be very complex and very risky to try him”.

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