Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants went on a hunger strike Wednesday to protest the shooting death of an attorney on the ousted Iraqi leader’s defense team — the third such killing in the 8-month-old trial.
In other violence, gunmen kidnapped roughly 85 workers north of Baghdad, forcing them into a bus and a minivan, and later released about 30 women and children. About a dozen people were killed across Iraq, and an al-Qaida-led insurgent group announced that it will execute four Russian hostages.
Lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi, a Sunni Arab who represented Saddam and his half brother Barzan Ibrahim, was abducted from his home Wednesday morning by men wearing police uniforms, his colleagues said. His body was found riddled with bullets on a street near the Shiite slum of Sadr City. Police provided a photo of al-Obeidi’s face, head and shoulders drenched in blood.
Saddam’s chief attorney, Khalil al-Dulaimi, blamed the killing on the Interior Ministry, which Sunnis have alleged is infiltrated by so-called Shiite death squads.
“We strongly condemn this act and we condemn the killings done by the Interior Ministry forces against Iraqis,” he said.
There was no comment from the ministry. Hit squads and other gangs are known to often disguise themselves as police officers.
Married with six children, al-Obeidi was the third member of Saddam’s defense team to be killed since the trial began Oct. 19.
Al-Dulaimi and his colleagues said the brutal slaying was an attempt to intimidate the defense before it begins final arguments July 10, a process that will take about 10 days.
“We consider his killing a message to us in the defense: ‘To continue what you are doing will result in death in broad daylight on the streets of Baghdad.’ It is a message that’s written in blood,” said Mohammed Moneib, an Egyptian lawyer retained by Saddam.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi said the trial would continue.
“We will defy terrorism,” al-Moussawi told The Associated Press. “We will continue with the trial and will not be deterred,” he said. The prosecution has demanded the death penalty for Saddam in the killing of 148 Shiites during a crackdown against the town of Dujail in the 1980s.
Despite the killing, Saddam’s lawyers said they would forge ahead with their closing arguments.
However, al-Dulaimi told the AP in Amman, Jordan, that Saddam and his co-defendants “went on a hunger strike today to protest the killing of Khamis al-Obeidi.”
“They pledged not to end the strike until international protection is provided to the defense team,” he said.
Al-Moussawi noted that members of the defense team had turned down an offer to live with their families in Baghdad’s heavily protected Green Zone, home to the Iraqi government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy.
Unlike al-Dulaimi, who shuttles between the Jordanian and Iraqi capitals, al-Obeidi lived in the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad.
State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said “every form of protection and assistance” is offered to the prosecution and defense, but “unfortunately, in the case of this individual, he refused” them.
The U.S. Embassy urged the lawyers and their families to “accept the full range of security measures offered for their protection.”
“The U.S. considers defense counsel a vital part of the judicial process. This criminal act will not prevent the defendants before the tribunal from continuing to receive a full and fair defense, or halt the tribunal’s efforts to restore justice and rule of law for the Iraqi people,” it said.
The State Department expressed its condolences to al-Obeidi’s family and said “any attack that kills a participant in a judicial process is to be condemned, and we condemn this murder.”
“We are committed to helping the Iraqi government bring those responsible to justice,” Ereli said.
A spokeswoman for Amnesty International said both Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition authorities need to investigate the assassination.
The kidnapping of the 85 workers north of Baghdad was only the most recent case involving mass abductions.
Reason for mass abductions unclear
Police said it was unclear why gunmen seized the workers as they left the al-Nasr General Complex, a former military plant that now makes metal doors, windows and pipes, but noted that the assailants apparently looked at their captives’ identity cards. In Iraq, it is often possible to determine someone’s ethnic, sectarian and tribal affiliation from their names. The workers were thought to be mostly Shiite, while the plant is located in Taji, a predominantly Sunni Arab area with insurgent activity.
Kamel Mohammed, a plant engineer, said he saw gunmen in three sedans intercept two of the factory’s buses and a minivan. The buses are used to ferry workers from the plant to the Shiite areas of Baghdad.
An al-Qaida-led insurgent group said in a Web statement that it has decided to kill four Russian Embassy workers kidnapped in Baghdad on June 3. It said Moscow failed to meet its demands for a full withdrawal of troops from Chechnya.
The statement by the Mujahedeen Shura Council came a day after the same group claimed responsibility for killing two U.S. soldiers whose bodies were found south of Baghdad.
At least one and possibly both of the soldiers was beheaded, a U.S. military official in Washington said Wednesday. The official requested anonymity because the final report on the bodies’ conditions has not been formally released.
In other developments:
- Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Soudani called for suspending trade with Australia because he said Australian security guards killed two people — including one of his guards — and wounded three after a misunderstanding at his ministry’s parking lot.
- The U.S. military said Iraqi forces arrested a high-level insurgent in Baghdad. Noori Abu Hayder Al-Oqabi was wanted for running an assassination cell in the capital that was responsible for kidnapping and killing 14 Iraqi soldiers last month, it said.