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However, Mr Allawi hasn’t said who will go on trial, nor confirm when Mr Hussein himself will appear in court.

Mr Hussein, who with 11 of his top Baathist-regime officials has been captured by coalition forces, is being held at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad airport. But the former leader’s defence team has immediately disputed the validity of the planned trials.

“The interrogation (of detainees) in the absence of their lawyers is invalid and the accusations made against them are also invalid according to legal rules,” says a spokesman for the defence lawyers.

The interim government originally said Mr Hussein, who could face the death penalty, would go on trial after the January 30 elections, but the ongoing insurgency has moved forward the date of his arraignment.

Even so, Mr Allawi today confirmed that violence was likely to increase even further after the promised January 30 elections.

“Terrorist strikes and attacks will not stop after the elections. On the contrary, they will increase because this is a fight between good and evil,” the interim PM told parliament.

Mr Allawi announced that the insurgency had been dealt a blow with the killing of an aide to Iraq’s most wanted man, Jordanian Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the alleged leader of several insurgent activities throughout Iraq.

In the latest violence, at least eight Iraqis have been killed in two suicide car bomb attacks in as many days near an entrance to the secure Green Zone, home of the interim government and foreign embassies.

Fighting again erupted in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah over the weekend, forcing the military to call in air strikes on rebel positions.

And the bodies of 14 men killed with a single bullet to the head were found in a cemetery in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Mr Allawi also says that 500 corpses had been found in a mass grave near Suleimaniyah, north of Baghdad.

The bodies were believed to be those of hundreds of Kurds killed by the regime in the late 1980s.

Internationally, Iraq has urged world leaders to help it find more than one million people who have gone missing or disappeared since Mr Hussein’s regime was toppled.

Officials from donor governments, UN agencies and other advocacy groups are meeting to discuss Iraq’s human rights situation with Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin, and Justice Minister Malek Dohan Al-Hassan, in Geneva over the next couple of days.

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Mr Sharon, who has been bereft of a parliamentary majority for the last six months, was given a major boost this week when the central committee of his own Likud party finally approved his plans to bring the main opposition Labour faction into government.

After suffering the embarrassment of a defeat in a similar ballot in August, victory by a resounding vote of 1,410 to 857 was particularly sweet for Mr Sharon.

A source close to the Prime Minister said he had already phoned Labour leader Shimon Peres to start talks on joining the government.

The source added that Mr Sharon was also to invite the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism to join the government.

While Shas, opposed to the withdrawal from Gaza, is likely to stay outside the government, the five deputies of the UTJ are expected to come on board.

The 81-year-old Peres, keen to taste power for possibly one last time, reiterated that he would welcome the opportunity to enter a new coalition in order to ensure the implementation of the so-called disengagement plan.

“We support Ariel Sharon’s proposition to forge a new coalition”, he told public radio.

“We hope that this decision represents a step forward in the peace process and we will act to support the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank,” added the former premier and Nobel peace prize winner.

Mr Sharon had warned that he would have no option but to call new elections if he was not given room to bring about a new coalition.

After losing three coalition partners in little more than six months, he can now rely on the support of only 40 of the 120 members of the parliament.

The top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot daily said Mr Sharon’s threats to call new elections, rather than a genuine change of heart among Likud hardliners, was the main reason for his victory.

“The great majority of these (hardliners) still oppose the evacuation of settlements from Gaza and the unilateral disengagement plan,” it said.

Mr Sharon, who has traditionally been seen as the ultimate champion of the settlers, has vowed to see through the uprooting of the 8,000 Jewish residents of Gaza next year come what may.

By leaving Gaza and four small Jewish enclaves in the northern West Bank, he is hoping to alleviate pressure for a more comprehensive withdrawal from the West Bank, where the vast majority of the 245,000 settlers live.

The Palestinians are deeply suspicious of Sharon’s intentions, fearing he will use the Gaza pullout to block progress on the wider peace process.

Negotiations minister Saeb Erakat said the vote was an “internal matter” but expressed hope a new government would help revive the peace process.

“We hope the formation of a new Israeli government will lead to the reviving of a meaningful peace process,” Mr Erakat said.

Mr Sharon had initially said the pullout would be implemented on a unilateral basis.

However, with the emergence of a more moderate Palestinian leadership since Yasser Arafat’s death last month, Mr Sharon has indicated a willingness to coordinate the process.

Meanwhile, there was no end to the violence in the region.

A seven-year-old Palestinian girl was killed and three other Palestinians wounded by Israeli forces in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis shortly after a Hamas mortar attack on a nearby Jewish settlement, Palestinian medical sources said.

The mortar attack wounded at least four Israelis, medical sources said. Two of them, one a young child, were said to be in critical condition.

An Israeli military source said soldiers had “returned fire towards the source of the mortar shell attack”, adding that reports of the girl’s death were being investigated.

In Brussels, the European Commission announced that it will deploy more than 260 observers to monitor next month’s Palestinian presidential poll to elect a successor to Arafat.

Bassam al-Salhi, a candidate in the January 9 vote, was arrested by Israeli authorities after allegedly assaulting a border policeman at a checkpoint near Jerusalem after being refused permission to enter the holy city.

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Mr Kufuor won 52.75 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s poll, ahead of his main opponent John Atta Mills, who gained 44.32 percent.

While results from five of the country’s 230 constituencies have not been finalised, electoral officials said they will not alter the overall result.

“I declare President Kufuor new president of the Ghana republic,” said commission chairman Kwadwo Afari-Gyan.

The two minor candidates, Edward Mahama and George Aggudey, won 1.9 percent and one percent of the vote respectively, he said.

The turnout rate was a massive 83.2 percent, and observers have praised the poll for being well-run, calm and orderly.

While they reported several incidents of irregularities, they said these were isolated incidents.

President Kufuor’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) is set to hold on to its slender majority in parliament, newly grown by 30 seats to 230 members, which were also contested in the elections.

Mr Afari-Gyan called the elections a success and thanked the voters, the political parties, the security forces and the electoral officials for their involvement.

“The president is very happy at this re-election for the next four years… the general elections were conducted peacefully and orderly,” said Kufuor spokesman Kwabena Agyapong.

“It is obvious that majority of Ghanaians have been appreciative of the way President Kufuor and his government have worked over the last four years,” he told a press conference.

John Agyekum Kufuor, 66, is nicknamed the ‘gentle giant’ and was first appointed deputy minister of foreign affairs in 1969.

He has put in place favourable economic policies that have helped the country post five percent growth each year and cut inflation, currying favour with international lenders.

President Kufuor, an Oxford-educated lawyer, was first elected in 2000 after the charismatic and controversial John Rawlings had been in power for two decades.

Rawlings, 55, seized power in June 1979 only to hand the reins to an elected civilian government four months later.

A second coup on December 31, 1981 ushered the former flight lieutenant to the presidency he held with an iron fist until 2000, when he was constitutionally obliged to step down.

Both of his military regimes are accused of having tortured, tried and executed their opponents.

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Hicks’ Adelaide-based lawyer, Stephen Kenny, has said the Australian government must investigate the mistreatment of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay because the US was not interested in doing so.

In the affidavit sealed in August and released by his lawyer this week, Hicks states prisoners have been beaten whilst blindfolded and handcuffed, terrorised by dogs, forced to take drugs and had food withheld by jailers.

“At one point, a group of detainees, including myself, were subjected to being randomly hit over an eight-hour session while handcuffed and blindfolded,” he said.

“I have been struck with hands, fists, and other objects, including rifle butts. I have also been kicked.”

He said he had been offered a prostitute if he would spy on other detainees.

The release of the affidavit comes the same week as the publication of several documents that show FBI agents sent to Guantanamo Bay warned the government of abuse and mistreatment as early as the start of the detention mission.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said this week the government has received assurances from the US that torture had not been used on Hicks and fellow Australian terror suspect Mamdouh Habib at Guantanamo Bay.

The US government maintains prisoners are treated according to the Geneva Convention.

US policy condemns and prohibits torture.

“When we have credible allegations of detainee abuse we take those very seriously and investigate them,” Pentagon spokesman Major Michael Shavers said.

But Mr Kenny today said assurances from the US are not enough in light of mounting evidence to the contrary.

“Given the extent of the detail and the consistency of the various reports of ill treatment at Guantanamo Bay, there can be no doubt that these allegations are true,” he said.

He urged the attorney-general to have his department investigate the matter.

“It appears to me the Americans have little interest in investigating these matters because they have been aware of them, and the allegations have been fully detailed to them, for at least six months in David’s case and longer in the case of others.”

Hicks’ Adelaide-based father, Terry, said the affidavit shows the lengths his son was prepared to go to prove his claims of abuse.

“David’s not a liar,” Mr Hicks said.

“It looks like poor old David’s got to go to the extremes now of trying to prove it (the abuse) instead of our government investigating it.”

Hicks, 29, from Adelaide, was one of the first prisoners to arrive at the camp in eastern Cuba in January 2002. He was later joined there by Mamdouh Habib.

He is one of only four terror suspects who have been formally charged among 550 detainees at Guantanamo accused of links to Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime or the al-Qaeda terror network.

He is scheduled to be tried in a military commission in March.

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Scott Peterson, a 32-year-old fertiliser salesman, was unanimously sentenced to death by the jury that last month convicted him of killing his wife Laci and unborn son Connor, climaxing a two-year drama that has captured the attention of the media.

A crowd in front of the courthouse in Redwood City, northern California, cheered as the jury announced their decision.

Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder of his wife and second-degree murder of his son, despite no proof directly linking him to their deaths presented during the five-month trial.

The jury deliberated over their verdict for 12 hours over three days. They had two options in deciding his fate: life in prison without parole or death by injection. The judge will on February 25 decide whether to uphold the sentence or reduce it.

Peterson clenched his jaw when the verdict was read and leaned over to speak with his lawyer, but showed no other emotion.

Laci Peterson, a 27-year-old teacher, was eight months pregnant went missing on or around December 24, 2002, sparking a major search that was initially led by her husband.

Peterson claimed he had been out fishing when his wife disappeared, and a stranger abducted and killed her.

However he was soon suspected of involvement, and four months after her disappearance, Laci Peterson’s headless and limbless body washed up on a San Francisco beach.

“Scott Peterson was Laci’s husband, Connor’s daddy, the one person who should have protected them,” juror Richelle Nice told reporters, explaining the unanimous verdict of the jury.

Peterson’s celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos said the verdict would be appealed.

After leading the search for his missing wife, Peterson was arrested in April 2003 after dying his dark hair blond and driving hundreds of miles south toward Mexico, carrying $US15,000 cash.

Prosecutors alleged he killed Laci to escape the shackles of marriage and reclaim the life of a bachelor and to be with his mistress, masseuse Amber Frey.

Peterson did not testify at his own trial but his lawyers strongly denied he was responsible for the deaths.

Tapes of his amorous telephone conversations with his lover, even as search parties were hunting his wife, were played during the trial.

It is rare in California for a death sentence to be overturned, but also rare for them to be carried out, with only 10 executions held since capital punishment was brought back in 1978.

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South Australian Sea Rescue Squadron staff have spotted a 4 to 5 metre-long shark swimming in the vicinity of the spot where the teenager was taken on Thursday.

Nick Peterson was being towed behind a boat on a surfboard about 300 metres from the shore of Adelaide’s popular West Beach when a shark grabbed one of his arms and dragged him under.

Three 16-year-friends traveling in the boat watched on in horror as Mr Peterson was torn apart.

The three friends are reported to be deeply shocked by his death which they had been unable to stop.

Initially, witnesses suggested two sharks had been involved in the attack, but authorities now believe just one great white was responsible.

Great whites are a protected species, but Acting Premier Kevin Foley says the government considers any large shark close to shore that’s posing a threat to the public should be destroyed.

The powerful predators, which can grow up to seven metres in length, are widely regarded as endangered and Australia has signalled its intention to get the great white listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species at a meeting of member nations in October.

Meanwhile, a search is being conducted to retrieve Mr Peterson’s remains continues.

Searchers have made the grim discovery of body parts on the sand of Adelaide’s West Beach, believed to be those of the 18-year-old.

The teenager, originally from South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula but living in Adelaide, was said to have taken a day off work from his job as a paver to go to the beach, according to a report by the Australian newspaper quoting a friend, Louise French.

Temperatures are forecast to hit the mid-30s in coming days, but beachgoers have been warned to keep to patrolled areas of the Adelaide coast.

Surf lifesaving clubs are also expected to put on extra patrols over the next few days while fears remain of the shark returning to the area.

It is the second fatal shark attack in the country in a week, after 38-year-old Mark Thompson was killed at Opal Reef, 75 kilometres from Cairns, on December 11.

Mr Thompson suffered massive leg wounds after being bitten and died of a cardiac arrest before medical treatment arrived.

South Australia, with its rich feeding grounds in waters such as the Spencer Gulf, has become a hotspot for fatal shark attacks, according to shark expert Rodney Fox.

Ten deaths have been recorded in the state since 1975.

John West, Kepper of the national Shark Attack File and operations manager at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, says fatal attacks by great whites on humans are extremely rare.

Rarer still, according to Mr West said, was that Mr Peterson had been eaten following the initial attack.

But Mr West added it waisn’t unusual for sharks to come so close to shore and that the possibility of future attacks cannot be ruled out.

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This comes a year to the day after the ousted Iraqi leader was captured by US troops near his home town of Tikrit.

“It appears that some of the other 11 high-value detainees have been rejecting food, although they continue to snack and to take on liquids,” said Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a spokesman for detention operations in Iraq.

“None of the people caring for (the detainees) are characterising this as a hunger strike,” he said.

Lawyers for some of the detainees said Saddam is also rejecting meals, but this was denied by officials, who said he had eaten on Sunday and might not even be aware of the action by his former aides, as he is held at a separate location.

The 11 aides are awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, and reportedly having been on their hunger strike since Friday.

Among those taking part are Saddam’s former deputy leader Tariq Aziz, and the military said the only possible reason for the action could be a desire for more Red Cross visits.

“This absolutely does not involve Saddam,” said Lt Col. Johnson.

“He’s in good condition and is continuing with his normal routine, which includes taking his meals.”

The former dictator receives regular visits from the Red Cross, which gives him letters from his family, and is permitted to leave his cell twice a day for exercise.

He was taken ill earlier this year ands underwent treatment for an enlarged prostate gland, hernia problems and eye trouble.

He is held in a secret location, believed to be near Baghdad’s international lawyer.

While he has a 20-member legal team from a number of countries, his lawyers said they have been denied permission to meet with him

In a statement released on Sunday, his lawyers said their first meeting with him, scheduled for last Wednesday, was cancelled by the US military.

“Denying his this right is a serious breach of international protocols,” said the statement.

Saddam first appeared before an Iraqi court in July, however it is likely to be some time before his trial begins.

Iraq’s national security advisor Mouwafak al-Rubaie said is will be held no earlier than the start of 2006.

“This is going to be probably the trial of the century and we have to get it right,” he said.

“We can’t suddenly try him and sentence him to either life in prison or whatever, execute him a 100 times as some people want to do.”

Despite Saddam’s capture, violence continues unabated in Iraq, with new reports saying that US troops are being killed at more than twice the rate they were dying at in the period before Saddam was taken.

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Instead, they argued the administration’s strong support of Israel made it difficult to undertake political reform or to stop extremists driven by hatred of U.S. policies.

“Let us face it,” said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal. “We perceive no clashes of civilization or competing value systems. The real bone of contention is the longest conflict in modern history.”

The unusually frank comments were made in a conference session that was supposed to have been closed to the news media.

But delegates’ words were inadvertently piped to reporters in a nearby media centre.

President George W Bush has said establishing greater democracy in the Middle East would be a central goal of his second term.

But after Arab backlash to the idea, the focus of the conference, officially known as the “Forum for the Future”, was watered down to focus mostly on economic liberalisation.

US officials in the past have rejected a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political reform in the Middle East.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell made that point again as he flew to Rabat.

“We can’t keep pointing to the Middle East peace process as the reason we don’t undertake reform efforts that are needed by these nations,” he told reporters travelling with him.

Later at a news conference, Mr Powell acknowledged that progress in Middle East peace process would help with political reform.

“But we are not sitting here today saying no reform until that is resolved,” he said.

But other Arab officials echoed Prince Saud’s remarks or brought up the US war in Iraq, which is also deeply unpopular in the region.

The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, attributed insecurity in the region to the stagnation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Libya’s representative, deputy foreign minister Hassouna Shawish, said “continued bloodshed makes it difficult for us all. I’m talking about bloodshed in Iraq.”

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Over one thousand civilians are dying every day in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says the International Rescue Committee (IRC)

The ICRC claims the vast majority of deaths are from easily preventable illnesses, due to the on-going six-year civil war that’s festering killed nearly four million people.

The IRC says more than 31,000 civilians continue to die each month in Africa’s third largest nation, despite peace deals reached by 2002.

The 1998-2002 war in Congo drew in the armies of five other African nations, fighting for control over the country’s gold, diamonds and other precious minerals.

Rwanda and Uganda and allied Congolese rebel groups held control of the east and north-east while government forces held the west.

Although the Congo’s war is officially over, the IRC describes it as still being the “deadliest crisis” in the world, with the international community doing too little to stop it.

“In a matter of six years, the world lost a population equivalent to the entire country of Ireland or the city of Los Angeles,” said Dr Richard Brennan, one of the authors of the report.

“Congo remains by far the deadliest crisis in the world, but year after year the conflict festers and the international community fails to take effective action,” he said.

The report found almost half of those who died were children under the age of five.

And 98 percent of people were killed by disease and malnutrition resulting from a healthcare system destroyed by the years of war.

Congo’s immediate future looks shaky.

Despite a peace deal signed in 2002 and a transitional government set up last year, huge tracts of the vast central African nation remain unstable.

Last month, Rwanda threatened to attack rebels in Congo, fuelling fears of a return to full-scale war.

“If the effects of insecurity and violence in Congo’s eastern provinces were removed entirely, mortality would reduce to almost normal levels,” the IRC said.

It described the international humanitarian response as “grossly inadequate in proportion to need”.

While the US aid budget for Iraq in 2003 totaled $3.5b, Washington spent only US $188m on Congo in 2004

The IRC says that’s worth the equivalent of $138 per person.

The organisation lists the immediate priorities money as improving security, increasing basic medical care and providing immunisation and clean water.

The agency says along with more aid, there was also a need for more United Nations peacekeepers.

There are currently plans for around 15,000 UN troops to be deployed, but the IRC claimed these were poorly equipped, poorly trained and lacking in commitment.

It wants highly trained and well-resourced troops who could prevent arms flows and protect vulnerable civilians.

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The meeting between the ousted Iraqi president and a member of the defence team appointed by his family was granted nearly a year after Hussein’s capture by US troops in a hideout near his hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. Saddam is being held at a US base at Baghdad airport.

Defence counsel said the Iraqi leader appeared well during the four-hour interview.

As the special tribunal set up to prosecute his regime confirmed it was poised to begin hearings, a senior official revealed that Saddam himself would be the last to be hauled into the dock.

“The president seems in good health, much better compared to his first appearance before the court,” said a statement issued in Amman by the legal team appointed by his wife and daughters.

Saddam and 11 senior aides appeared in court in July for the first time since their capture to hear preliminary charges of crimes against humanity.

The lawyers, who have throughout challenged the legality of the planned trials, had been pressing to see Saddam for months and complained vigorously they had not been allowed to attend interrogations of their client.

The Iraq Special Tribunal, established by the US-led coalition last December, confirmed earlier this week it was ready to begin proceedings.

“The Iraqi Special Tribunal will be starting investigative hearings for the senior leadership of the former regime, in coordination with international observers,” a statement said.

It gave no precise starting date but the British embassy in Baghdad said the first hearing would open next week.

“It is important not only that justice is done but that justice is seen to be done, so Iraqis can come to terms with their past,” embassy spokeswoman, Victoria Whitford said.

Britain has given 1.3 million pounds ($A3.317) in financial assistance for the trials.

In an interview with a Swiss newspaper, Justice Minister Malek Dohan al-Hassan made clear Saddam himself was likely to be the last of the dozen defendants in custody to appear before the court.

“Saddam himself would be judged the last, long after the elections in January,” Hassan said during a visit to Geneva.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali” for his alleged role in the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in 1988, will be the first to appear, the minister confirmed.

He would be followed by Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti, a half-brother of Saddam, who was also a top presidential adviser.

The minister criticised the decision to bring forward the first hearings to before landmark polls set for January 30, saying it would have been better to await the legitimacy of an elected government.

“Trials that are so symbolic of the leaders of the ex-regime should have been opened after a legitimate Iraqi government was created by the ballot box, that is to say after the elections,” said Hassan.

He added he would also have preferred the trials be delayed until after the withdrawal of US-led troops.

The landmark meeting between Saddam and his lawyer came after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) cancelled planned talks with his defence team.

An ICRC spokesman said the agency had seen little point to the talks after the lawyers accused it of acting as a “tool” of the United States by not revealing details of its five visits to Saddam.