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Hussein protests after lawyer slain

Hunger strike by ex-leader is reported

BAGHDAD -- Saddam Hussein and his seven codefendants went on a hunger strike yesterday to protest the shooting death of a lawyer on the ousted Iraqi leader's defense team, their chief lawyer said -- the third such killing in the 8-month-old trial.

In other violence, gunmen kidnapped about 85 workers north of Baghdad, forcing them into a bus and a minivan, and later released about 30 women and children. About a dozen people were killed across Iraq, and an Al Qaeda-led insurgent group announced that it will execute four Russian hostages.

Lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi, a Sunni Arab who represented Hussein and his half brother Barzan Ibrahim, was abducted from his home yesterday morning. His body was found riddled with bullets on a street near the Shi'ite slum of Sadr City. Police provided a photo of Obeidi's face, head, and shoulders drenched in blood.

Hussein's chief attorney, Khalil al-Dulaimi, blamed the Interior Ministry for the killing. Sunnis have alleged that the ministry is infiltrated by so-called Shi'ite death squads.

``We strongly condemn this act, and we condemn the killings done by the Interior Ministry forces against Iraqis," he said.

There was no comment from the ministry.

Bushra al-Khalil, a Lebanese member of the defense team, said Obeidi was taken from his house by men dressed in police uniforms and driving four-wheel-drive vehicles used by Iraqi security forces.

But Obeidi's wife, Um Laith, was quoted on The New York Times website as saying the attackers wore civilian clothes. She said 20 men burst into their house while the couple and their children were sleeping and identified themselves as members of an Interior Ministry security brigade.

The Times also quoted Iraqi witnesses as saying Obeidi was transported in a convoy by people known as belonging to the anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.

Obeidi was the third member of Hussein's defense team to be killed since the trial began Oct. 19. His colleagues said the brutal slaying was an attempt to intimidate the defense before it begins final arguments July 10, a process that will take about 10 days.

``We consider his killing a message to us in the defense: `To continue what you are doing will result in death in broad daylight on the streets of Baghdad.' It is a message that's written in blood," said Mohammed Moneib, an Egyptian lawyer retained by Hussein.

Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi said the trial would continue.

``We will defy terrorism," Moussawi told the Associated Press. ``We will continue with the trial and will not be deterred," he said. The prosecution has demanded the death penalty for Hussein in the killing of 148 Shi'ites during a crackdown against the town of Dujail in the 1980s.

Despite the killing, Hussein's lawyers said they would forge ahead with their closing arguments.

However, Dulaimi told the AP in Amman, Jordan, that Hussein and his co-defendants ``went on a hunger strike today to protest the killing of Khamis al-Obeidi."

``They pledged not to end the strike until international protection is provided to the defense team," he said.

Moussawi noted that members of the defense team had turned down an offer to live with their families in Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone, home to the Iraqi government, parliament, and the US Embassy.

Unlike Dulaimi, who shuttles between the Jordanian and Iraqi capitals, Obeidi lived in the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad.

State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said ``every form of protection and assistance" is offered to the prosecution and defense, but ``unfortunately, in the case of this individual, he refused" them.

The US Embassy urged the lawyers and their families to ``accept the full range of security measures offered for their protection."

``The US considers defense counsel a vital part of the judicial process. This criminal act will not prevent the defendants before the tribunal from continuing to receive a full and fair defense, or halt the tribunal's efforts to restore justice and rule of law for the Iraqi people," it said.

The State Department expressed its condolences to Obeidi's family and said ``any attack that kills a participant in a judicial process is to be condemned, and we condemn this murder."

``We are committed to helping the Iraqi government bring those responsible to justice," Ereli said.

A spokeswoman for Amnesty International said both Iraqi and US-led coalition authorities need to investigate the assassination.

The report of Hussein and the others on a hunger strike could not be independently confirmed, but it would not be the first time the defense team has said its clients were refusing food.

On Feb. 28, Obeidi said Hussein and several other defendants had ended a hunger strike he said they had started Feb. 12 to protest the chief judge in their trial. In December 2004, the US military acknowledged that eight of Hussein's 11 top lieutenants went on weekend hunger strike to demand jail visits from the international Red Cross.

The kidnapping of the 85 workers north of Baghdad was only the most recent case involving mass abductions.

It was unclear why gunmen seized the workers as they left the Nasr General Complex, a former military plant that now makes metal doors, windows and pipes.

But sectarian violence has been raging, and police noted that the assailants apparently looked at their captives' identity cards.

In Iraq, it is often possible to determine ethnic, sectarian, and tribal affiliation from a person's name. The workers were thought to be mostly Shi'ite, while the plant is in Taji, a predominantly Sunni Arab area with insurgent activity.

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