Shiites and Sunnis traded mortar attacks Tuesday on Baghdad neighborhoods across the Tigris, killing 21 as police found the bodies of 15 torture victims in the river south of the capital.
The violence persisted despite a move by the Interior Ministry to charge 57 members of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police force, including a general, in the alleged torture of hundreds of detainees at a prison in east Baghdad.
Saddam Hussein, whose government favored the Sunni minority, called on Iraqis to "forgive, reconcile and shake hands" as he returned to court Tuesday for his Kurdish genocide trial two days after being sentenced to hang in a separate case.
The ousted dictator's former second in command, the fugitive Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, has ordered bosses in Saddam's Baath party still in Iraq to cease attacks, according to government and parliamentary officials who claimed knowledge of the developments.
Former Baathists are thought to be a major component of Sunni resistance to the Shiite-led Iraqi government and foreign forces, but not the only component. Even if they halt their attacks, fighting could continue to rage in insurgent areas because there are many other groups attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces as well as Shiite Muslim civilians and militias.
Coffee shop bombed
In the latest round of sectarian attacks, police said two mortar shells slammed into a coffee shop in a Shiite neighborhood in north Baghdad late Tuesday, killing at least 14 people and wounding 16. The attack appeared to have been in response to mortar fire on a Sunni neighborhood across the Tigris earlier in the day that killed seven people and wounded 25.
Authorities reported finding the bullet-riddled bodies of 15 apparent death squad victims floating in the Tigris south of Baghdad, all blindfolded and bound at the wrists and ankles. The victims apparently were tortured before being shot to death. Hundreds of such killings have been recorded in the capital since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February ignited revenge sectarian killings.
Torture is considered widespread among the poorly trained police force, which has suffered heavy losses at the hands of Sunni insurgents and criminal gangs, but Tuesday's announcement marked the first time the government has pressed charges. Iraqi police are accused of close ties to the Shiite death squads, whose daily abductions and killings fuel sectarian violence convulsing the country.
Police complicit in torture?
Some officers were accused of abetting the violence by allowing the gunmen to violate curfews and pass through checkpoints.
The concerns were underscored by the discovery of a police torture chamber in Baghdad last year, and by the apparent complicity of police in a mass kidnapping of Sunni workers that prompted authorities to take an entire police brigade out of service for retraining.
Among those charged in the torture at Site No. 4, the prison in eastern Baghdad, were a general, 19 officers, 20 noncommissioned officers and 17 patrolmen or civilian employees.
A top Shiite leader said Tuesday that Iraq's neighbors could play a positive role in improving the deteriorating security situation in the country but first they have to be convinced that U.S. troops are not a danger to them.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest bloc in parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, was referring to Iran and Syria, counties that have been accused by the United States of aiding a three-year insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people.
"As you know, the lack of stability in a country could be the result of an internal or external factor. Some neighboring countries could have a negative effect on the situation at the same time these countries could play a positive role," al-Hakim told The Associated Press during an interview in his heavily guarded house overlooking the Tigris.
His comments came a month after former Secretary of State James Baker, who heads the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, suggested that Washington should engage Syria and Iran in the effort to pacify Iraq.
Iran urges quick execution
On Tuesday, Iran urged Iraq to disregard calls for clemency and hang Saddam, saying the former president's "very existence is anti-human."
Saddam's startling call for reconciliation came after he rose during the afternoon session to question the testimony of the witnesses, who told of a mass killing of Iraqi Kurds in the 1987-88 Operation Anfal crackdown on Kurdish guerrillas.
Saddam then calmly spoke about how the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ asked for forgiveness for those who had opposed them.
"I call on all Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds, to forgive, reconcile and shake hands," Saddam said before taking his seat.
Meanwhile, four officials in the Iraqi government and parliament, each in a position to hear about largely secret efforts to reach accord with members of the Sunni insurgency, said al-Douri, Saddam's former vice president, has ordered Baath party bosses still in Iraq to end attacks within the past two days.
The officials, who said they knew about the order independently because of their contacts with members of the insurgency, said the directive was issued through couriers sometime after Saddam was sentenced on Sunday to hang for crimes against humanity. The four answered questions from the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
It was impossible to verify the statements independently.