BAGHDAD — A jittery Iraqi government locked down the capital and surrounding provinces Saturday ahead of an expected verdict today in the trial of former President Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity.
Iraqi officials canceled all military leaves, ordered the Baghdad airport closed and imposed an indefinite curfew from 6 a.m. today in the capital and the religiously mixed provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin, home to Hussein's birthplace and the Shiite Muslim town at the center of his trial.
Hussein and seven codefendants are accused of killing scores of Shiite villagers and committing other crimes in retribution for a 1982 assassination attempt against the onetime president in Dujayl. If convicted, Hussein could be sentenced to hang.
"We hope this verdict will be what this man deserves for the crimes that he committed against the Iraqi people," said Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite who has called for the death penalty in this case.
He urged Iraqis, known for celebratory gunfire, to mark the outcome with "calmness and discipline ... in a way that is suitable to the security challenges."
Hussein's lawyers and fellow Sunni Muslim Arabs have warned that a guilty verdict could unleash more bloodshed in a country reeling from daily sectarian and insurgent attacks.
At least 20 people were killed Saturday in bombings, mortar assaults and gunfire around the country. They included four children slain when gunmen shot at their car in northwest Baghdad, said hospital officials and the victims' father. Two relatives were injured. In another attack, three mortar rounds slammed into a residential area near Baghdad's main Sunni Abu Hanifa mosque, killing six people and injuring 20, officials said.
Police also found the bodies of at least 15 men, some bound and tortured, scattered around Baghdad in the 24 hours ending Saturday evening.
The privately owned Al Sharqiya television station reported the killing of one of its journalists, Ahmed Rasheed, who was gunned down Friday while driving through north Baghdad. He was at least the 88th journalist killed in Iraq since hostilities began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count based on statistics kept by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Maliki has argued that convicting Hussein would strike a blow at the Sunni-driven insurgency. But in the capital, where bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites is claiming more lives than the campaign against U.S.-led forces, some complain that they see no point in prosecuting past atrocities when new ones are committed every day.
"I don't care what happens to Saddam," said an electrical engineer who gave his name only as Abu Ali. "All I want is for someone decent and God-fearing to serve in the government."
Further evidence of the Hussein era's brutality emerged Saturday: Officials in the southern city of Najaf announced the discovery of a makeshift communal grave while digging for a water project.
The site contained the shackled remains of four people, who forensic experts estimated were buried up to 30 years ago, police said. Officials believe there could be other graves at the site, on the outskirts of the Shiite-dominated city.
In one of the day's few bits of good news, two kidnapped members of a national team for blind athletes were released unharmed Saturday in Baghdad, according to the local Sports Journalists Assn. Gunmen had seized coach Khalid Najim Deen and player Esam Khalaf of the "bell ball" team Wednesday. Residents spotted the pair, tired and afraid but otherwise unharmed, by the side of the road in the southeast part of the city, a member of the association said.
Also Saturday, U.S.-backed Iraqi troops detained three suspects during a morning raid in Baghdad's Sadr City district that targeted the leader and members of a "murder and kidnapping" cell, the military said.
The raid came after U.S. troops withdrew a cordon of roadblocks around the vast Shiite slum in accord with a demand from Maliki, who is under pressure from Shiite militants in his governing coalition.
Times staff writer Said Rifai and special correspondents in Baghdad and Najaf contributed to this report.