BAGHDAD -- An Iraqi judge has ruled that there is enough evidence to try two former Shiite Health Ministry officials in the killing and kidnapping of hundreds of Sunnis, many of them snatched from hospitals by militias, according to American officials who are advising the Iraqi judicial system.
The case, which was referred last week to a three-man tribunal in Baghdad, is the first time that an Iraqi magistrate has recommended that such high-ranking Shiites be tried for sectarian violence. But any trial could still be derailed by the Health Ministry, making the case an important test of the government's will to administer justice on a nonsectarian basis.
The Iraqi investigation has confirmed long-standing Sunni fears that hospitals were opened up as a hunting ground for Shiite militias intent on spreading fear among Sunnis and driving them out of the capital. Even before the case, Baghdad residents told of death threats against doctors who would treat Sunnis, of IV lines ripped from patients' arms as they were carried away, and of relatives of hospitalized Sunnis who were killed when they came to visit.
The case centers on Hakim al-Zamili, a former deputy health minister, and Brig. Gen. Hamid al-Shammari, who led the agency's security force, which is charged with protecting the ministry and its hospitals. The former officials were taken into custody in February and March amid reports that they had been implicated in sectarian violence and corruption. But the status of the judicial inquiry into their activities and its findings has not previously been reported.
The inquiry included testimony from nine witnesses, some of whom have been granted visas to live in the United States for their protection.
If the trial goes ahead, it will be held in a new Rule of Law complex in the Rusafa section of the capital. The installation was built by the American military earlier this year, and the al-Maliki government has allocated $49 million to operate the facility. The proceedings could happen in the next few weeks.
One looming question is whether the Iraqi government will move forward with the trial, which would shine a light on some of the most serious sectarian abuses committed under government cover. The Health Ministry could try to block the case by invoking a section of the Iraqi criminal law that precludes prosecution of officials who are carrying out their official duties.
The Iraqi judges slated to try the case have informed the Health Ministry that they want to proceed and have asked for the agency's approval. The Health Ministry has yet to respond.
The case, which involves officials allied with the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, would have been difficult for the Iraqi government to take on in the past because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki received crucial support from al-Sadr supporters in Parliament.
Since the spring, however, when al-Sadr ministers withdrew from the government, al-Maliki has distanced himself from al-Sadr's supporters, and he has recently allied himself with a rival Shiite group, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Whether al-Maliki played a role in the appointment of the two former Health Ministry officials is unclear.
"This investigation and trial can be a real statement that protected Iraqi witnesses and judges will follow the evidence where it leads, even when it leads to corrupt senior government officials," Col. Mark Martins, the staff judge advocate for the command led by Gen. David H. Petraeus, said in a telephone interview.
Hospitals were one of the first places where al-Sadr's supporters asserted themselves after the ouster of Saddam Hussein
At about the same time, large numbers of unemployed Iraqis joined the Facilities Protection Service, a low-paying jobs program whose employees were given guns and told to guard government agencies, offices and schools. Many of those who took the jobs were Shiite supporters of al-Sadr.
With those two organizations clearly in their camp, al-Sadr supporters were well positioned to wield power when the country factionalized along Sunni-Shiite lines.
Al-Zamili and al-Shammari were appointed to their positions at the Health Ministry with al-Sadr's backing. According to accounts by witnesses interviewed for the Iraqi inquiry, they turned the ministry into a personal fief and gained control of the fuel and vehicles, and its Facilities Protection Service.
Under al-Zamili and al-Shammari's direction, 150 members of the agency's protection service were organized into a special company that acted like a private militia. Using Health Ministry identification to move freely around Baghdad and ambulances to ferry weapons, they carried out hundreds of sectarian killings and kidnappings from 2005 to early 2007, the investigation reports.