Scores killed in Iraq mayhem


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Bombs, rockets, mortar shells and gunfire claimed the lives of at least 70 Iraqis and injured hundreds yesterday, even as the government announced an overhaul of security forces in an attempt to coordinate police and military efforts, reduce the power of militias and ease sectarian tensions.

The most deadly violence of the day involved apparently coordinated attacks on Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite Muslim slum in eastern Baghdad, that left at least 46 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

Shootings and explosions killed 12 Iraqis elsewhere in the capital, while the bodies of a dozen others were found around the city, some in a sewage ditch, according to police and hospital officials.

At a palace inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Defense Minister Saadoun al-Duleimi, a Sunni Arab, and Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite, appeared side by side, flanked by scores of police officers and army generals, to announce the security initiative after weeks of sectarian violence.

Under the new plan, which Jabr said was hashed out between the two ministers at his house last week, the military and police would put together joint teams when making arrests. Security forces would be required to give detainees receipts stating the units of the arresting authorities. And members of U.S.-led coalition forces would sit in on investigations to "ensure [their] integrity," al-Duleimi said.

Sunnis have long complained that the Iraqi police force has been infiltrated by Shiite militiamen who are carrying out extrajudicial executions and torture. Almost daily, bodies are found bound, blindfolded and shot execution-style.

"It will help us find out who arrested the people who later show up dead," al-Duleimi said of the reforms.

While the majority of police officers are Shiite, the Iraqi army predominantly consists of Kurds and Sunni Arabs. The government dispatched Iraqi soldiers to guard Sunni mosques and police to protect Shiite places of worship during the week of bitter bloodshed that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite shrines in the country.

Al-Duleimi said the two ministries would seek to work "as one team and not two."

In another move to ease political tensions, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari held a rare meeting with interim President Jalal Talabani. The two men's longtime rivalry burst into the open this month when Talabani joined a movement to oppose al-Jaafari's nomination by the leading Shiite alliance to keep his job.

The president's office announced that the opening session of Iraq's new parliament would be moved up to Thursday, a nod toward Shiites. The session had been planned for yesterday, a major Shiite holiday during which many pilgrims travel to the holy city of Karbala.

The parliamentary session sets in motion the formation of Iraq's first full government since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The president, vice presidents, prime minister and Cabinet are supposed to be chosen within four months of the first meeting.

Al-Jaafari struck a conciliatory note, telling reporters after the meeting that "the points of view between me and the president were very similar."

On the streets of Baghdad, however, killings continued.

The violence began at dawn, when a roadside bomb exploded near an Iraqi army patrol in the Mustansiriya neighborhood, critically injuring five soldiers. An hour later, a mortar hit a house in the center of the capital, killing two people and wounding six. Other attacks followed, including a roadside bomb that exploded near a U.S. convoy, killing six Iraqis and injuring 13.

The bodies of eight bound-and-blindfolded men were found in a sewage ditch in Rustimiya, southeast of Baghdad. All had been shot in the head, execution-style. The bodies of three men were found inside a parked car in the industrial area of Bayaa. Another body, showing evidence of torture, was found under a bridge in the city center.

Close to sunset, two car bombs, one detonated by a suicide attacker, tore through two busy markets less than a mile apart in Sadr City. The explosions were followed by rocket and mortar attacks. Shortly after the explosions, the streets were teeming with members of the Mahdi Army militia, a group loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, many firing AK-47s into the air.

The court trying Hussein and seven members of his former regime resumed hearings yesterday, taking testimony from three lesser-known defendants. The deposed president was not in the courtroom but was expected to appear later in the week to speak in his defense.

The eight defendants face charges for the collective punishment of the Shiite village of Dujail, where hundreds were arrested and 148 were executed after shots were fired on the president's motorcade in 1982.

The defendants who testified yesterday - Ali Dayih Ali, Mizhar Abdullah Ruwayyid and Ruwayyid's father Abdullah Kadhem Ruwayyid, all members of Hussein's Baath Party in Dujail - denied any role in identifying or arresting suspects in the assassination attempt.

One by one, the three men disavowed statements they had signed in the presence of investigators about their roles in the crackdown. Each claimed poor eyesight. "I might as well have been signing a blank paper," Mizhar Ruwayyid said. "I didn't have my glasses."

In a separate development, components of a roadside bomb were found hidden in a cigarette package on the tarmac of Baghdad International Airport as passengers were getting on a Royal Jordanian Airlines flight Saturday.

The flight took off after a three-hour delay, but the U.S. Embassy issued an alert yesterday stating that all U.S. government employees were prohibited from taking commercial flights in and out of Baghdad until further notice.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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