BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants went on a hunger strike Wednesday to protest the shooting death of an attorney on the ousted Iraqi leader’s defense team, their chief lawyer said — the third such killing in the 8-month-old trial.
On Thursday, the U.S. military announced that four Marines were killed during operations in insurgent-ridden Anbar province, three of them in a roadside bombing.
The military statement said three Marines assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 “died after their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.” It said the fourth Marine, assigned to 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, “died after being attacked while conducting security operations.”
At least 2,511 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
In other violence, gunmen kidnapped roughly 85 workers and their family members north of Baghdad, forcing them into a bus and a minivan, and later released about 30 women and children. About a dozen people were killed across Iraq, and an al-Qaida-led insurgent group announced that it will execute four Russian hostages.
Lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi, a Sunni Arab who represented Saddam and his half brother Barzan Ibrahim, was abducted from his home Wednesday morning. His body was found riddled with bullets on a street near the Shiite slum of Sadr City. Police provided a photo of al-Obeidi’s face, head and shoulders drenched in blood.
Saddam’s chief attorney, Khalil al-Dulaimi, blamed the killing on the Interior Ministry, which Sunnis have alleged is infiltrated by so-called Shiite death squads.
“We strongly condemn this act and we condemn the killings done by the Interior Ministry forces against Iraqis,” he said.
There was no comment from the ministry.
Bushra al-Khalil, a Lebanese member of the defense team, said al-Obeidi was taken from his house by men dressed in police uniforms and driving four-wheel-drive vehicles used by Iraqi security forces.
However, al-Obeidi’s wife, Um Laith, was quoted on The New York Times’ Web site as saying the attackers wore civilian clothes. She said 20 men burst into their house while the couple and their children were sleeping, and identified themselves as members of an Interior Ministry security brigade.
The Times also quoted Iraqi witnesses as saying al-Obeidi was transported in a convoy by people known as belonging to the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army.
Al-Obeidi was the third member of Saddam’s defense team to be killed since the trial began Oct. 19. His colleagues said the brutal slaying was an attempt to intimidate the defense before it begins final arguments July 10, a process that will take about 10 days.
“We consider his killing a message to us in the defense: ‘To continue what you are doing will result in death in broad daylight on the streets of Baghdad.’ It is a message that’s written in blood,” said Mohammed Moneib, an Egyptian lawyer retained by Saddam.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi said the trial would continue.
“We will defy terrorism,” al-Moussawi told The Associated Press. “We will continue with the trial and will not be deterred,” he said. The prosecution has demanded the death penalty for Saddam in the killing of 148 Shiites during a crackdown against the town of Dujail in the 1980s.
Despite the killing, Saddam’s lawyers said they would forge ahead with their closing arguments.
However, al-Dulaimi told the AP in Amman, Jordan, that Saddam and his co-defendants “went on a hunger strike today to protest the killing of Khamis al-Obeidi.”
“They pledged not to end the strike until international protection is provided to the defense team,” he said.
Al-Moussawi noted that members of the defense team had turned down an offer to live with their families in Baghdad’s heavily protected Green Zone, home to the Iraqi government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy.
Unlike al-Dulaimi, who shuttles between the Jordanian and Iraqi capitals, al-Obeidi lived in the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad.
State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said “every form of protection and assistance” is offered to the prosecution and defense, but “unfortunately, in the case of this individual, he refused” them.
The U.S. Embassy urged the lawyers and their families to “accept the full range of security measures offered for their protection.”
“The U.S. considers defense counsel a vital part of the judicial process. This criminal act will not prevent the defendants before the tribunal from continuing to receive a full and fair defense, or halt the tribunal’s efforts to restore justice and rule of law for the Iraqi people,” it said.
The State Department expressed its condolences to al-Obeidi’s family and said “any attack that kills a participant in a judicial process is to be condemned, and we condemn this murder.”
“We are committed to helping the Iraqi government bring those responsible to justice,” Ereli said.
A spokeswoman for Amnesty International said both Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition authorities need to investigate the assassination.
The report of Saddam and the others on a hunger strike could not independently confirmed, but it would not be the first time the defense team has said their clients were refusing food.
On Feb. 28, al-Obeidi said Saddam and several other defendants had ended a hunger strike he said they’d started Feb. 12 to protest the chief judge in their trial. In December 2004, the U.S. military acknowledged that eight of Saddam’s 11 top lieutenants went on weekend hunger strike to demand jail visits from the international Red Cross.
The kidnapping of the workers north of Baghdad was only the most recent case involving mass abductions.
It was unclear why gunmen seized the workers as they left the al-Nasr General Complex, a former military plant that now makes metal doors, windows and pipes.
But sectarian violence has been raging, and police noted that the assailants apparently looked at their captives’ identity cards. In Iraq, it is often possible to determine someone’s ethnic, sectarian and tribal affiliation from their names. The workers were thought to be mostly Shiite, while the plant is located in Taji, a predominantly Sunni Arab area with insurgent activity.
Kamel Mohammed, a plant engineer, said he saw gunmen in three sedans intercept two of the factory’s buses and a minivan. The buses are used to ferry workers from the plant to the Shiite areas of Baghdad.
Police did not give the ages of the children who were released, and it was not clear what they were doing there. But some workers may have brought along their young children if they don’t have anybody to watch over them at home, and other youngsters may have been teenagers with jobs at the factory.
An al-Qaida-led insurgent group said in a Web statement that it has decided to kill four Russian Embassy workers kidnapped in Baghdad on June 3. It said Moscow failed to meet its demands for a full withdrawal of troops from Chechnya.
The statement by the Mujahedeen Shura Council came a day after the same group claimed responsibility for killing two U.S. soldiers whose bodies were found south of Baghdad.
At least one and possibly both of the soldiers was beheaded, a U.S. military official in Washington said Wednesday. The official requested anonymity because the final report on the bodies’ conditions has not been formally released.
In other developments:
• Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Soudani called for suspending trade with Australia because he said Australian security guards killed two people — including one of his guards — and wounded three after a misunderstanding at his ministry’s parking lot.
• The U.S. military said Iraqi forces arrested a high-level insurgent in Baghdad. Noori Abu Hayder Al-Oqabi was wanted for running an assassination cell in the capital that was responsible for kidnapping and killing 14 Iraqi soldiers last month, it said.