Saddam has been held at a high-security prison on a US base outside Baghdad since his arrest in December 2003, and is accused of crimes against humanity.

“The Iraqi government is now doing its best to prepare the ground for a court which will be able to decide, about Saddam Hussein’s future,” President Talabani told CNN.

But his comments drew a quick rebuttal from Giovanni di Stefano, a London-based member of Saddam’s legal team, who told the Press Association: “Before any trial can occur there has to be an indictment and a charge.”

Mr Stefano is part of a 24-member international legal team hired by Saddam’s wife Sajida and their three daughters.

“No matter how hopeful the Iraqi president is, there can be no substance to this until the man is properly charged,” the lawyer argued.

Saddam appeared before an Iraqi judge last July during a preliminary hearing at which he was accused of using chemical weapons against Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988 and cold-bloodedly crushing a Shiite rebellion in 1991.

Other accusations brought against him included the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the 1983 massacre of the Kurdish Barzani tribe, and the murder of political and religious leaders.

If convicted he could be sentenced to death, a punishment widely practiced under his regime but suspended by the US soon after the invasion in March 2003.

It was reinstated in June last year by an unelected interim Iraqi government.

A member of the lawyer’s staff has met twice with Saddam, the last time a month ago, Mr Stefano said.

Among the challenges facing judicial proceedings are hiring and protecting judges.

So far, two tribunal staff are known to have been killed and a US adviser to the tribunal said there have been numerous threats.

President Talabani said he is hopeful Iraqi forces will be ready to defend their country in 12 to 18 months.

Within that time he hoped the Iraqi army would be “well-trained and ready to fight terrorism.”

Speaking in Washington, US President George W Bush backed the view that Iraq will be able one day to defend itself.

“I think the Iraq government will be up to the task of defeating the insurgents. I think the Iraqi people dealt the insurgents a serious blow when they had the elections [in January],” he said.

Meanwhile, the CIA says it believes an audio message posted on the internet attributed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is authentic.

In the message Iraq’s most wanted militant acknowledged he had been lightly wounded but said he was still fighting in Iraq.