An Iraqi court on Thursday sentenced 15 alleged al-Qaida members to death for their role in the 2006 wedding party massacre of 70 people, considered one of the most horrific attacks carried out by Sunni-led militants during the insurgency.

The defendants were convicted of planning and carrying out the attack in the mainly Shiite town of Dujail, Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said.

Dujail is located 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad and is surrounded by Sunni areas that were under the control of al-Qaida operatives at that time.

Since the defendants' arrest last month, Iraqi state TV has been airing the defendants' confessions in what is seen as an attempt by embattled Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to show that he is protecting the country.

In videotaped confessions, the defendants said the motive behind the massacre was that the groom was Shiite and the bride was Sunni.

At a fake check point set up by insurgents disguised as Iraqi soldiers, the families were stopped, kidnapped and taken to a remote area where they were separated.

According to the confessions, the insurgents threw 15 screaming children into the Tigris River after hanging concrete blocks around their necks. Blindfolded men were lined on the river bank with their hands tied behind their backs and were shot dead execution-style.

Then the insurgents raped the women, including the bride, who had her chest slashed and was left to bleed to death in front of her husband.

In a statement issued after the verdict, al-Maliki thanked the court and described the insurgents as "violent criminals who shocked all Iraqis with their hideous crime."

A number of international human rights organizations have been questioning whether the proceedings of Iraqi courts comply with international standards for fairness.

Bayrkdar responded to those concerns. "The court completed today all its procedures properly," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview after the half-day trial. "It was open to the public, and the convicted had the chance to talk and enter their pleas."

The 15 have a month to appeal the death sentences.