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Ex-Iraqi health officials face trial

/ Source: The Associated Press

A former deputy health minister and the head of the ministry's security force will go on trial Tuesday for allegedly allowing Shiite death squads to use ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings, officials said.

Former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili and Brig. Gen. Hameed al-Shimmari, who was in charge of the ministry's security force, were arrested after Iraqi soldiers stormed their offices in separate raids in February last year.

The two were accused of links to the Mahdi Army — a militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — and the case is seen as a test of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's willingness to crack down on Shiite extremists as well as Sunnis.

Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, spokesman for the Iraqi Higher Judicial Council, said Sunday that murder and kidnapping were among the charges facing the men.

The trial will begin Tuesday in a new high-security complex in eastern Baghdad, chief prosecutor Ghadanfar Mahmoud said.

Liwa Smeism, head of the political committee for al-Sadr's bloc in the holy city of Najaf, said the accusations were "false and baseless."

"We have confidence that they were not involved in such claims," Smeism said. "We support the law, thus we expect that they will be released."

Al-Sadr in August ordered his fighters to stand down for six months, and the U.S. military has credited the cease-fire with a sharp drop in the execution-style killings and kidnappings that have been attributed to the group. But American and Iraqi forces have persisted with raids against what they say are breakaway factions that continue attacks.

That has drawn a warning from the cleric that he may not extend the order when it expires at the end of this month. Smeism said a final decision has not been made.

Al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite who won office in part because of support from al-Sadr's followers, has said that no one is immune from arrest or prosecution during a security operation to restore peace in Baghdad.

But the trial will occur more than a year after al-Zamili was arrested by U.S. and Iraqi troops in a Feb. 9, 2007, raid, underscoring the sensitivity of the allegations.

At the time when al-Zamili and al-Shimmari worked at the Health Ministry, it was one of six Cabinet posts controlled by the Sadrists. Since then, al-Sadr's loyalists have resigned their Cabinet posts over al-Maliki's failure to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

Without mentioning the two officials by name, the U.S. military has said they played a role in the deaths of several ministry officials, including the Sunni director of health in Diyala province. The director, Ali al-Mahdawi, vanished in June 2006 after coming to Baghdad for a meeting at the ministry.

‘Support sectarian attacks’
A U.S. military statement issued after al-Zamili's arrest said the official — without mentioning him by name — was believed to have siphoned millions of dollars from the ministry to the Mahdi Army "to support sectarian attacks and violence targeting Iraqi citizens."

The militiamen also were allowed to use government hospitals and clinics to gather information on Iraqis seeking treatment and "those Iraqis that were discovered to be Sunnis would later be targeted for attacks," the military said.

American officials had long complained that al-Sadr's followers were transforming hospitals into bases for the Mahdi militia and were diverting medicine from state clinics to health care facilities run by the cleric's movement.

The clinics helped al-Sadr build a powerful nationwide political movement modeled in part on the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.