BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Shiite-led Iraqi government acknowledged Sunday that its forces may have targeted innocent Sunni Muslims in a drive to crush the insurgency in southwestern Baghdad and its suburbs. Saddam Hussein (search) will go on trial within two months on a dozen charges of crimes against humanity, a spokesman for the prime minister said.
Authorities in the northern city of Mosul (search) announced the arrest of yet another key terrorist leader of the Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist organization and its Ansar al-Sunnah affilate, the second in seven days, on charges of organizing and financing killing sprees. The terrorist organization is led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), who carries a $25 million bounty.
"There is an improvement in security and in the performance of the security forces, but members of the army and police do cause mistakes, which do happen," said Laith Kuba, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search).
There were also some claims that "soldiers took advantage and helped themselves to cash and other items. One doesn't rule it out. I think the army needs more disciplinary measures in these cases," Kuba said.
In recent days, Sunni Muslim organizations charged that many innocent Iraqis were arrested and most were Sunnis, the minority that dominated the country during Saddam's rule and are believed to form the backbone of the violent insurgency.
Regardless of the complaints and the acknowledged mistakes, the crackdown — dubbed Operation Lighting — entered its second week Sunday and appeared to have somewhat blunted insurgent attacks in the capital.
The charges of over-zealous behavior by the military and police as they seek to roust the insurgents coincide with government efforts to include Sunni Arabs in the political process, and to get them involved in drafting Iraq's new constitution. Sunni approval is necessary for the charter's adoption in a national referendum. It is to be ready by mid-August and approved in an October plebescite.
"We should not forget the bigger picture, which is that the security forces have a duty to combat the (terrorist) cells that take out their anger and violence on the Iraqi people," Kuba said. "This is not a public relations exercise, this is a tough confrontation, and it is with the best troops we have in our hands."
Although the government has not provided fresh figures on the number of Iraqis arrested so far, the Interior Ministry said last Thursday that 700 people had been detained. The U.S. military said Friday it had detained at least 200 more during a two-day sweep south of Baghdad in an area known as the Triangle of Death.
The worst mistake, already acknowledged by top government officials, occurred on the second day of Operation Lightning, when U.S. forces arrested and later released the leader of Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political party. Kuba said that at least 200 other people had been released so far.
Operation Lightning aimed in its first week to seal Baghdad's entry points to prevent access to the capital for car bombers. It also focused on areas of southern and western Baghdad — which have predominantly Sunni Arab populations and are the capital's most violent districts.
"Our military has taken the offensive now, taking the fight to the insurgents. This operation really will ensure better security for the capital," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in a televised interview during a visit to Washington.
A key element of Washington's exit strategy from Iraq hinges on the ability of Iraq's American-trained police and military to take control of security. The insurgency has killed at least 836 people since the government took power just over one month ago.
Zebari also said Saddam's trial, which Kuba predicted would begin within two months, would have a positive "impact on the security situation" in Iraq, and should begin the "sooner the better."
But Saddam's trial could prove to be highly divisive in an already turbulent Iraq that shows signs of deepening secular divisions. Starting the court proceedings in two months would overlap with the writing of the constitution.
"There should be no objection that a trial should take place within that time," Kuba said. "It is the government's view that the trial of Saddam should take place as soon as possible."
Kuba added that before Saddam's trial starts, the National Assembly must "legitimize" the special tribunal that will hear the case against him and his chief aides. The process will begin soon, Kuba said, without elaborating.
The prime minister's spokesman said prosecutors had narrowed their case against Saddam to about a dozen well-documented charges.
A list of allegations supplied by the tribunal consists of 14 charges, including the gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja, where an estimated 5,000 people were killed and 10,000 others were hurt on March 16, 1988.
In Mosul, authorities said, the captured the purported financier of the Al Qaeda in Iraq group's cell in that northern city. Mutlaq Mahmoud Mutlaq Abdullah, also known as Abu Raad, was arrested on May 29 and is considered a key facilitator and financier for a militant identified by the alias Abu Talha, the purported head of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terror cell in Mosul.
Also Sunday, Australia's top Islamic cleric said he had seen hostage Douglas Wood and said the 63-year-old California-based Australian engineer is "still alive and in honest hands. " Sheik Taj El Din al-Hilaly is in Iraq on a mission to secure Wood's release and said the kidnap victim had received medication for his heart condition. .
The Australian was abducted in late April and a militant group calling itself the Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of Iraq released a video recording on May 1 that showed the captive pleading for Australia to withdraw its 1,400 troops from Iraq.
Mohammed Ghazi, a translator working for the U.S.-led forces in Kirkuk, was killed by gunmen as he was walking to his home, said police Lt. Hawar Mohammed.
Gunmen in a speeding car opened fire on Iraqi security forces Sunday in eastern Baghdad, killing a policewoman and injuring a policeman, Col. Ahmed al-Alawi said. Police are routinely targeted by insurgents who regard them as U.S. collaborators.
An Iraqi truck driver was killed by gunmen in a second drive-by shooting during the afternoon, this time in western Baghdad's Abu Ghraib district while he was transporting concrete blast walls for the U.S. military, said police Lt. Akram al-Zubaee.