Baghdad clamps down ahead of Saddam verdict

/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. and Iraqi forces drastically tightened security across Baghdad on Saturday in advance of the expected guilty verdict against Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqi prime minister said he hoped the ousted dictator will “get what he deserves.”

Saddam has been on trial for murder and crimes against humanity and, if convicted, could be sentenced to death by hanging. Violence is already running high, with police finding the bodies of 87 torture victims throughout the capital between 6 a.m. Thursday and 6 p.m. Friday. Across Iraq, at least 16 people were killed or found dead on Saturday.

The highly anticipated verdict, planned for Sunday, is expected to set off further bloodshed, underscoring the trial’s failure to bring reconciliation to a country fractured ever deeper along sectarian lines.

“We hope that the verdict will give this man what he deserves for the crimes he committed against the Iraqi people,” said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has declared he hoped Saddam would be hanged.

“The Iraqi people will express their happiness in a way they see fit and we will call on the Iraqi people through a broadcast statement to remain calm and express their happiness in an appropriate way in this current situation, in a way that does not risk their lives,” the Shiite prime minister said after a meeting with tribal leaders from the restive southern city of Amarah.

An aide to al-Maliki said authorities are imposing a 12-hour curfew on Baghdad and three surrounding provinces starting at 6 a.m. Sunday. Not just cars, but people will be barred from the streets. Baghdad’s airport also will be closed.

Curfew imposed
The curfew will cover all of Baghdad province, Salahuddin province, which includes Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, and the Sunni insurgent hotbeds of Diyala and Anbar provinces.

Leave for all military personnel has been canceled indefinitely and vacationing soldiers recalled to active duty.

New checkpoints sprang up around main roads, including within the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses Iraqi government offices and the U.S. and British embassies. Larger than usual numbers of policemen and U.S. troops patrolled city streets, while U.S. Army Stryker armored vehicles blocked traffic on both sides of the al-Jumhuriyah Bridge, one of the capital’s most heavily guarded because it carries traffic past the Green Zone.

“We received orders to tighten security measures and to use any available policemen to tighten the security,” police Lt. Ali Abbas said.

Any violence would be met with a stern response, said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which commands the police.

“We warn anyone who intends to exploit this event that our response will be tough and severe,” police Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf told The Associated Press without elaborating.

Many of Saddam’s fellow Sunni Arabs are predicting a firestorm if the ex-president is sentenced to death. On the other hand, majority Shiites, who were persecuted under Saddam but now dominate the government, are likely to be enraged if he escapes the gallows.

Setting the tone, al-Maliki, said last month that a conviction for Saddam would help break the will of the former dictator’s followers in the largely Sunni Arab-led insurgency.

On trial for Shiite deaths
Saddam and seven co-defendants — including a half brother — have been on trial since Oct. 19, 2005, for their alleged roles in the deaths of about 150 Shiites in the town of Dujail after an assassination attempt against the president in 1982.

A second trial against Saddam — for alleged genocide against the Kurds — began in August and more charges are expected to follow. It is unclear whether those cases would move forward if Saddam is condemned to hang.

On Wednesday, one of Saddam’s lawyers said a death sentence would “open the gates of hell” to the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Bushra al-Khalil, a Lebanese lawyer who was thrown out of Saddam’s trial in May, also accused President Bush of exploiting the verdict — which comes two days before hotly contested midterm elections — for “electoral purposes.”

In a letter addressed to the presiding judge, Saddam’s 10-member defense team, including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, wrote that it would be premature to deliver the verdict on Sunday “because the court did not receive the final defense statements yet.” It was not possible to confirm that the judges had received the letter.

Among those killed in violence Friday was Ahmed al-Rasheed, a correspondent for the privately-owned Sharqiya channel. The station said he was the third employee to be killed since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

With al-Rasheed’s death, at least 88 journalists have been killed in Iraq since hostilities began in March 2003 — including 28 this year — according to an Associated Press count based on statistics kept by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

A blind Iraqi athlete and paralympics coach kidnapped this week were released unharmed after their abductors determined neither man was linked to the Sunni insurgency, sports officials said Saturday.

Khalid Nejim and Issam Khalef left Iraq on Saturday to resume training in neighboring Jordan, said Qahtan al-Naimi, the chairman of Iraq’s paralympics committee.   “The kidnapers must have known that the news about the kidnapping was getting bigger and bigger and that these were simply disabled athletes who have won medals in international competition for their country,” al-Naimi said.