BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” One of Saddam Hussein’s main lawyers was shot dead on Wednesday after men in police uniform took him from his home, relatives said, the third defence attorney to be killed since the trial opened in October.
Gunmen also abducted 80 or more factory workers travelling home in a fleet of buses just north of Baghdad, police and interior ministry sources said. Violence is a major challenge for the new, US-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, who has launched a security clampdown on the capital.
The killing of lawyer Khamis Obaidi was a new setback for the US-backed court. It fuelled complaints sectarian bloodshed is crippling a fair trial. Saddam’s Sunni Arab minority accuse Shiite militias within the police of running death squads.
The lead lawyer, blaming pro-government militia for killing his deputy, called for a halt to the trial and said Saddam and others were on hunger strike. A US military official, however, said Saddam ate his evening meal. Some other inmates did not.
Five busloads of employees from a factory in Taji, north of Baghdad, were commandeered by dozens of gunmen, officials said.
One source put the number of those kidnapped at at least 100.
The area sees significant Sunni Arab insurgent activity.
Similar mass kidnappings have ended in massacres of those taken.
Al Qaeda’s allies said in a web posting they would kill four Russian embassy staff kidnapped in Baghdad 18 days ago because Moscow failed to meet a deadline to pull troops out of Chechnya.
Russia urged the group to heed Muslim calls to free the men.
A US official said eight members of a Marine unit in Iraq would be charged with murder over the shooting of a disabled man in April. It is one of a number of cases in which US troops have been accused of killing Iraqi civilians. Charges are expected over the deaths of 24 people at Haditha in November.
In a debate likely to shape US legislative elections in November, the Senate fought bitterly on Wednesday over measures pushed by opposition Democrats to wind down US involvement in Iraq that Republicans derided as “cut-and-run” strategies.
Obaidi’s wife told another defence lawyer that men in police uniform took Obaidi from his Baghdad home around 7:00am
“They said ‘We’re from internal security and we need you for questioning’,” Qatari attorney Najeeb Nuaimi told Al Jazeera television. Two hours later, Obaidi’s body was dumped on a road beside a poster honouring a Shiite cleric killed under Saddam.
The attack appeared very similar to the killing of another lawyer the day after the televised trial began in October.
Lead defence lawyer Khalil Dulaimi said the assailants blasted open a gate at Obaidi’s home. He told Reuters the hunger strike, not the first of its kind, would go on until Washington improved security for his team. US officials said Obaidi had turned down protection and urged his colleagues to accept it.
Saddam and seven Baath Party allies are being tried for crimes against humanity over the deaths of Shiite villagers.
A police officer said Obaidi had been shot eight times and there were signs of torture. Both his arms were broken.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar Moussawi said the killing would “not affect or delay the trial and we will defy terrorism”.
It came two days after Moussawi demanded the death penalty for Saddam and three of his senior Baath Party allies.
Shopowners told Reuters three gunmen dumped the body of Obaidi at a roundabout under a poster of a senior Shiite cleric killed by Saddam’s agents in 1999. The cleric is the father of Moqtada Sadr, a cleric and leader of the Mehdi Army militia.
“They fired into the air and said ‘This is the fate of Baathists!’,” said a vegetable seller whose store is close by.
The area is not far from the Sadr City slum, a stronghold of Sadr’s militia. The body of Saadoun Janabi, the first lawyer to be killed, was also dumped nearby. Neighbours said then that he was seized by men saying they were from the interior ministry.
The trial has also been marred by the resignation of the previous judge, who complained of government pressure. Defence counsel are due to sum up on July 10. A verdict may take months.
Unlike other defence lawyers, Obaidi still lived in Iraq.
Defiant, he told Reuters last year: “Whatever will be will be.”