BAGHDAD (AFP) – Gunmen shot dead a lawyer working for a Saddam Hussein co-defendant in Baghdad, the second defense lawyer killed in less than three weeks.
The assassination Tuesday underlined the volatile climate in Iraq and cast doubt on whether the trial of the ousted Iraqi leader and his seven co-defendants would resume as scheduled on November 28.
Adel Mohammed Abbas was killed when gunmen opened fire on him and lawyer Tamer Hammud Hadi in the Adl neighborhood of Baghdad, an interior ministry source said.
Raising fresh questions about Iraq”s capacity to hold the trial amid a lethal insurgency, Abbas”s murder followed the abduction and execution of defense lawyer Saadun Janabi one day after the historic trial opened in Baghdad on October 19.
The day before he was shot down Abbas told the US magazine Time that he knew he faced death because of his work.
Abbas represented former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, a member of the powerful Revolution Command Council who had been one of Saddam”s closest aides.
Hadi, who was rushed to hospital, helps with the defense of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, a Saddam half-brother who once headed the feared Mukhabarat intelligence service.
Janabi, who was found dead on October 21, represented Awad Ahmad al-Bandar, a former chief judge of the revolutionary court and deputy head of Saddam”s office.
All eight defendants face charges connected to the 1982 massacre of more than 140 Shiite villagers from Dujail, north of the capital. All pleaded not guilty. If convicted they could be executed.
No one took responsibility for the attack but a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari implied that Saddam supporters were the culprits.
"The government strongly condemns this assassination and believes that the only people who benefit from this are those who want to block the course of justice and move the trial out of Iraq," Leith Kubba said.
Rejecting suggestions to move the trial outside the country, Kubba said the government had offered police protection for the defense lawyers after Janabi”s murder but the offer was turned down.
"The government is not prepared to move the trial outside of Iraq. Justice must follow its course and we must guarantee the conditions for a just and transparent trial," he said.
The United Nations condemned the "cold-blooded murders" and the United States called the assault "a horrific act of violence."
"We will work with the government of Iraq and security officials of Iraq to bring those responsible to justice," US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington.
Following Janabi”s murder, defense lawyers suspended contacts with the Iraqi high tribunal trying crimes committed by Saddam”s Baath party rule.
The lawyers put forward 10 conditions for ending their protest, including an independent international investigation into Janabi”s killing, UN protection for meetings of the defence committee and the hiring of 15 bodyguards per lawyer to ensure their protection.
The defense reiterated their suspension of contacts with the tribunal on Sunday.
Meanwhile in western Iraq, at least 180 suspected terrorists were arrested Tuesday during a sweep against insurgents in the town of Husayba, near the border with Syria, the US military said.
Some of the detainees "originated from various countries within Asia and Africa," the military said.
Some 1,000 Iraqi and 2,500 US troops launched the offensive called Operation Steel Curtain early Saturday focusing on the Euphrates valley town in the restive Sunni Arab province of Al-Anbar.
At least one US marine and 36 suspected insurgents were reported killed in the fighting.
Unlike past days, no air strikes were conducted Tuesday, and the military described the resistance as "weakening."
The defense ministry said Tuesday that one Iraqi soldier had been killed and one wounded, and 68 suspected insurgents been captured.
One of the operation”s stated goals is to shatter the Al-Qaeda network in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which responded with an Internet statement threatening to retaliate with an offensive of its own.
The statement, which could not be independently verified, stressed the group”s "right to defend the (Islamic) nation and avenge the honour and blood" of Iraqis.
The US military said it also killed two suspected Al-Qaeda members and captured six in a raid near the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi.
In other violence, 11 Iraqis, including an intelligence officer and his brother, were killed in various attacks around the country, security sources said.
A top official from Jaafari”s political party said that a meeting to prepare for a broad-based conference aimed at quelling Iraq”s insurgency would take place in Cairo on November 19.
The goal is to organize a conference early next year after a new government takes office following the December elections, said Jawad al-Maliki, deputy leader of the Dawa party, a Shiite religious faction.
Maliki made the announcement after a meeting with Arab League assistant secretary general Ahmed Ben Helli, who has been in Iraq since Saturday.
In Cairo, visiting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan praised the Arab League initiative.
"The need for reconciliation in Iraq is real. If we do not reconcile the parties in Iraq, elections alone are not going to resolve their problems," Annan told reporters.
In New York, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a one-year extension of the mandate for US-led forces in Iraq.
The council voted 15-0 "to extend the mandate of the multinational force" until December 2006.