BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi government issued a long-anticipated package of security laws Wednesday to help crush insurgents, including a provision allowing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (search) to impose martial law (search).
"The lives of the Iraqi people are in danger, they are in danger from evil forces, from gangs of terrorists," said Human Rights Minister Bakhityar Amin, who compared the new law to the USA Patriot Act (search).
As the plan was announced, masked gunmen battled Iraqi forces in central Baghdad, and at least four people were killed. Mortars landed near a residence used by Allawi, and Iraqi police also defused a massive car bomb elsewhere in the capital.
The new laws give Allawi the right to impose curfews, to conduct search operations and detain individuals with weapons, once he receives unanimous approval from the Presidential Council. They also give him the right to assign governors, including military leaders, in specific areas, and they empower him to freeze the assets of suspects and monitor their communications.
Allawi signed the law earlier in the day, officials said.
"The law ... is really designed to protect lives in Iraq, whether these lives are Iraqis or friends of Iraq" in the country, Allawi told Associated Press Television News. "We will use the law ... whenever it is necessary to defeat our enemies."
The Presidential Council is made up of a president, who is a Sunni Arab, and two vice presidents — a Kurd and a Shiite. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are the three main groups in Iraq. Allawi is a Shiite.
Officials also emphasized the checks built into the new laws to allay fears that they could give Allawi dictatorial powers reminiscent of the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein (search).
Justice Minister Malik Dohan al-Hassan said the premier would need to get warrants from an Iraqi court for each step and said martial law could only be declared for 60 days or for the duration of the specific violence, whichever was shorter.
"We realize this law might restrict some liberties, but there are a number of guarantees," al-Hassan said. "We have tried to guarantee justice and also to guarantee human rights."
Amin said the human rights and justice ministries would form a joint body to monitor areas of the country where the emergency laws are declared.
The security dangers were underscored by the violence Wednesday. Insurgents waged a running gunbattle with Iraqi forces in the streets near Martyrs' Square, the Interior Ministry said. Health Ministry official Saad al-Amili said four people were killed and 20 injured in the battle.
U.S. armored personnel carriers moved to the scene of the fighting as two Apache helicopters hovered overhead. Interior Ministry officials said the helicopters fired on nearby buildings.
In another Baghdad neighborhood, four mortar rounds shook a neighborhood near the headquarters of Allawi's political party, wounding six people, an Interior Ministry official said. The attacks on a stretch of Zeitoun Street in central Baghdad also hit near a home used by Allawi, who was not there, the official said.
The assault marked the second time Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord, was targeted. In the days before U.S. officials handed over power to Allawi's interim government on June 28, insurgents overran the offices of the Iraq National Accord in Baqouba, an insurgent hotspot north of the capital, Baghdad. No one was hurt in that assault.
Iraqi police also defused a car loaded with 1,650 pounds of explosives Wednesday that was parked near the al-Iman mosque in the Karada neighborhood in downtown Baghdad, according to police Col. Adnan Hussein.
Later, an explosion shook the terminal at Baghdad International Airport. There was no immediate word on damage or casualties.
The U.S. military has been handing over security responsibilities to Iraqi police and national guard forces, which are largely ill-equipped and ill-trained to handle such duties alone.
Allawi and his government had delayed the announcement of the law on several occasions, suggesting some disagreement within the Cabinet over its provisions.
On Saturday, Allawi's spokesman, Georges Sada, suggested guerrillas who fought the Americans before the sovereignty transfer could be eligible for amnesty because their actions were legitimate acts of resistance.
However, the deputy prime minister for national security, Barham Saleh, said the Cabinet was discussing an amnesty offer and was deliberating how to give "people an opportunity to reintegrate within society" while at the same time "remaining firm against people who have committed atrocities and have committed crimes against the people of Iraq and against the coalition forces."
Amin also read out a list of foreign Arab fighters arrested in the country for taking part in the insurgency. They came from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Palestinian territories, Morocco, Turkey, and Iran.
He said one detainee, a Moroccan he identified as George Bin Baqi, was arrested at the Jordanian-Iraqi border with the son of Saddam's half brother, Mohammed Barazan al-Tikriti. He gave no other details.
Also Wednesday, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's (search) group said 100 of its fighters attacked U.S. forces on Monday in Saqlawiya, 43 miles west of the Iraqi capital, according to a statement posted on an Islamic Web site.
The statement did not say how many American soldiers were killed.
The U.S. military on Tuesday announced that three Marines assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed while on duty in western Iraq. Two died in action Monday in Anbar province, while a third died of his wounds later Monday.
Another four U.S. Marines were killed Tuesday in the province during security and stability operations, the U.S. military said.
In political developments Wednesday:
— The Iraqi government announced plans to conduct a national census in October, a key step in preparing for elections due by Jan. 21. The last time an official Iraqi census occurred — in 1997 — Iraq's population stood at 19 million, but that did not include the three largely autonomous Kurdish provinces in the north. U.S. authorities estimated this month that the population stood at 25.3 million.
— Iraq's national conference will meet before the end of July to elect a 100-member interim council to advise the government, the head of the committee in charge of convening the 1,000-member conference said. The council is envisaged as somewhat more than just a consultative body but somewhat less than a legislature.
— Iraq's finance minister, Adil Abdel-Mahdi, warned that the country's $120 billion debt could badly hinder efforts to rebuild the nation's economy.