BAGHDAD -- The largest political bloc in the Iraq government yesterday demanded the execution of Saddam Hussein if the ousted leader is convicted of war crimes, and said President Jalal Talabani should step down if he objects.
''This is something that cannot be discussed at all," said Ali Dabagh, a spokesman for the clergy-led United Iraqi Alliance, which holds 140 seats in Iraq's 275-member National Assembly. ''We feel he is a criminal. He is the number one criminal in the world. He is a murderer."
Talabani, a former Kurdish rebel leader, told the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday that signing a death warrant for Hussein would be contrary to his beliefs as a human rights advocate and opponent of capital punishment.
''I personally signed a call for ending execution throughout the world, and I'm respecting my signature," Talabani told the BBC. He conceded, however, that he was probably alone in the government in holding this view.
''No one is listening to me, to be frank with you," Talabani said. ''My two partners in the presidency, the government, the House, all of them are for sentencing Saddam Hussein to death before the court will decide."
Hussein and his top lieutenants will be tried before the Iraqi Special Tribunal established in late 2003. The tribunal has given no official dates for starting the trials, although national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said this month that Hussein could go on trial by year's end.
The death penalty was reintroduced in Iraq in August 2004 for crimes including murder, endangering national security, and drug trafficking. But it is only meant to be a temporary measure in the effort to stamp out the country's insurgency.
A senior Iraqi official was assassinated as he drove home in Baghdad yesterday, Interior Ministry officials said. Major General Adnan Qaraghulli, an adviser to the defense minister, was killed along with his son when gunmen ambushed his car.
In a separate development yesterday, hundreds of Iraqi security forces launched an operation to root out Sunni insurgents at the tip of Iraq's so-called Triangle of Death, but found no hostages despite reports that up to 100 Shi'ites may have been seized.
Iraqi forces fanned through the dusty streets of Madain and took positions on rooftops in the town south of Baghdad, while Sunni leaders dismissed the reports of a hostage crisis as a hoax.
The US military, whose forces stood by in case they were needed, called the operation in Madain a significant step forward in the training of Iraqi forces, which is key to America's exit strategy in the two-year-old war.
''The city is now under full control," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office said, adding that 10 suspected insurgents were arrested and large amounts of weapons seized.
Madain is an agricultural town of about 1,000 families, evenly divided between Shi'ites and Sunnis, located at the northern edge of a region considered to be a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency. When an AP photographer joined hundreds of police entering the town yesterday, they met no resistance and found no hostages.
National Security Minister Qassim Dawoud had warned parliament on Sunday of attempts to draw the country into sectarian war. Yesterday, he pledged to ''chase down terror everywhere" and said Iraqi forces had discovered mines, ammunition, and bomb-making equipment along with six completed car bombs in Madain.
Those detained included four ''sword men" believed to have conducted killings for the insurgents, said Rubaie, the national security adviser. Cells for holding prisoners were also found, he said.
Six Iraqi police and special forces battalions, each of which typically includes about 300 troops, participated in the operation, the Interior Ministry said.
Fewer than 200 US troops were on standby but they were not needed, the US military said.