An Iraqi court Thursday sentenced 11 people to death by hanging after convicting them of carrying out the August bombings of two government ministries that killed more than 100 people in the heart of Baghdad.
The attacks — the deadliest to that point in over a year and a half — raised questions about whether Iraqi forces were up to the task of protecting the country, coming less than two months after the U.S. handed over control of security in cities.
The bombings and two other massive attacks since primarily targeting government buildings have shaken Iraqis' confidence in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has staked his political reputation on keeping Iraq safe as he seeks to secure a second term. The swift convictions were announced less than two months before Iraqis vote in a nationwide parliamentary election.
Despite tangible security gains over the past two years, fear of another major bombing is never far from the surface. Thursday's sentences come as Iraq is already under heightened security concerns following a crackdown earlier this week that brought parts of Baghdad to a standstill.
Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said a criminal court in Baghdad's eastern Rusafah district found the 11 defendants guilty of financing, planning and participating in the Aug. 19 bombings that devastated the foreign and finance ministries.
There have since been two other massive attacks in Baghdad targeting government buildings, in October and December. Those attacks together killed more than 280 people and injured hundreds more.
The attacks have sparked outrage among many Iraqis, who wondered how the bombers could have driven through an area dotted with checkpoints, shaking their confidence in the nation's tenuous security gains because they occurred in what are supposed to be some of the city's safest parts.
Bayrkdar said the defendants have a month to appeal the death sentences, which were handed down with Thursday's ruling. He declined to provide details about those convicted, and did not name the judges, citing security precautions.
"The trial was fair and it followed all legitimate legal procedures," he said. "The defendants had lawyers during the whole trial."
An interior ministry official said one of the convicted is Ishaq Mohammed, who was released from Camp Bucca, a now shuttered U.S. detention facility in southern Iraq, about a year ago.
The official, who said most of those convicted had past criminal records, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Evidence against the defendants included explosives, detonators and car bombs that were found at locations where they were arrested, Bayrkdar said. He said the trial took place over three one-day court sessions, starting Dec. 29.
No date had been set for their execution.
Death by hanging
Tareq Harb, a prominent lawyer who attended some of the hearings, said a three-judge panel ruled the death sentences would be carried out by hanging.
Shortly after the August attacks, the Iraqi military released what it said was the confession of a Sunni man identified as a senior member of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. The military said the man admitted to supervising the attack on the finance ministry.
In the televised confession, the 57-year-old suspect identified himself as Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim and said he was a Baath Party member and former police officer before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Ibrahim said the operation was ordered by a Baath Party operative in Syria in a bid "to destabilize the regime." Iraqi authorities said at the time more than 10 people comprising the whole network involved in the attacks had been arrested.
Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the capital's top military spokesman, said those convicted Thursday were the same suspects taken into custody shortly after the explosions.
He said they have links both to the Baath party and al-Qaida in Iraq. He refused to answer questions about their sect.
The question of what to do with former members of the Baath party has been a particularly sensitive issue in Iraq, and a major hurdle to national reconciliation efforts. Al-Maliki has consistently painted the bombings last August, October and December as being the work of Baathists.
Persistent security risks extend beyond the capital.
Three explosions, including one caused by a car bomb, rocked the southern city of Najaf at about 5:45 p.m. near a commercial area, police said. An official in the city's health department said at least one person was killed and 50 were wounded.
Elsewhere, police said they arrested a man Wednesday night who was wanted for his alleged involvement with al-Qaida in Iraq.
Karbala police spokesman Capt. Alaa Abbas Jaafar said the suspect, Khalid al-Khonfisi, was captured in a police raid of his hideout near Jurf al-Sakhar, about 43 miles (70 kilometers) south of Baghdad.
"He is on a wanted list for terrorist crimes he committed, according to intelligence and eyewitnesses." Jaafar said.
Al-Khonfisi was wanted on charges including murder, kidnapping and terrorist acts, Jaafar said.