By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press Writer
Time:2006/12/20 16:47:03  

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, American officials deemed the Iraqi court system incapable of rendering a fair decision, and banned the death penalty. Iraqi authorities reinstated the death penalty after the transfer of sovereignty in June 2004 so they would have the option of executing Saddam for crimes committed by his regime. The government had also pointed specifically to the need to quell the insurgency when it reinstated the death penalty.

The former Iraqi president was convicted last month of crimes against humanity and sentenced to hang. His lawyers have appealed the verdict and sentence, and an appeals court is expected to rule early next year.

Elsewhere in the Iraqi capital, gunmen in military uniforms robbed government accountants as they left a bank with bags of cash. It was the second major robbery in Baghdad in eight days.

Assailants in four vehicles drove up to the Zuwiyah Bank in the Karradah neighborhood and fired automatic weapons in the air, then handcuffed guards and robbed accountants of 1 billion Iraqi dinars ($709,000), police said.

On Dec. 11, gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms stole $1 million from a bank truck.

Iraq has seen much other spectacular bank robberies in recent years. Shortly before the United States began bombing Baghdad in 2003, roughly $900 million in U.S. currency was taken from the central bank — a sum that amounted to about a quarter of Iraq's hard currency reserves.

Some news reports said Saddam Hussein ordered the money taken and sent his son Qusai to grab the cash in the middle of the night. The take was so large it reportedly had to be hauled away in three tractor trailers.

Hours after the accountants were robbed on Tuesday, guards at another downtown bank fired on a funeral procession, wounding a mourner. Police said the guards thought the coffin was fake, and that criminals were masquerading as mourners as part of an elaborate robbery attempt. Police intervened and found the mourners to be genuine.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. military announced the death of a Marine in the insurgent stronghold of Anbar province, bringing to 61 the number of American military personnel killed in December. Some 2,950 U.S. troops have been killed since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A former electricity minister who escaped from jail inside the heavily fortified Green Zone said he broke out because he feared he was about to be assassinated, the New York Times reported on its Web site Tuesday. Ayham Al-Samaraie also claimed he had already slipped out of the country.

The Times said it had a lengthy phone conversation with al-Samaraie, a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen who was being held on corruption charges. The newspaper did not explain how it verified his identity.

Al-Samaraie walked out of a police station Sunday with the help of private guards, officials said. He told the Times he had been tipped off that he was about to be killed and did not trust police to protect him. He claimed he had managed to board a flight out of Baghdad International Airport and left Iraq but he did not offer any proof.

The Times quoted Iraqi security and justice officials as saying someone as well-known as al-Samaraie could not possibly have boarded a flight when he was the subject of a manhunt.

Al-Samaraie derided Iraqi and U.S. officials in the interview.

"So why I cannot take the airport? It's not because I am a smart cookie," he said. "Any Iraqi can do it, even if they have 10,000 court orders against him. This is Iraq."

Al-Samaraie's escape left "more question marks," said Ali al-Shabout, spokesman for the Public Integrity Commission, which brought charges against al-Samaraie. "Why did the police only inform us after 12 hours?"

The Iraqi Red Crescent said the total number of people seized in a kidnapping at the aid group's Baghdad office on Sunday was 42, and that 26 had been released. The agency's Baghdad branches remained shut, but offices elsewhere in Iraq were open.

"The closure of Baghdad offices will continue until all the kidnapped people are released," Red Crescent spokesman Abdel-Hamid Salim said.

The U.S. military said insurgents detonated a bomb at a medical facility flying a Red Crescent flag in western Iraq, but there were no reports of casualties.

A Red Crescent spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said the facility did not belong to the agency. Red Crescent flags are often posted outside medical facilities that may not have a direct link with the aid group.

Residents said armed insurgents in black masks had left a bomb at the clinic, and an explosion shortly after their departure destroyed part of the building, the U.S. military said.

Police said they found 53 bodies around Baghdad on Tuesday, apparent victims of violence between Sunnis and Shiites. Many of the bodies showed signs of torture.

The morgue in the city of Baqouba north of Baghdad said it received 15 bodies of people who died violently, including those of two women and an Iraqi soldier. The morgue in Kut, southeast of Baghdad, received the bodies of seven people.

In other violence Tuesday:

• In southern Baghdad, two civilians were killed and seven wounded by mortar rounds, and a roadside bomb killed two civilians and wounded nine near an electricity plant, police said.

• Three children were killed when mortar rounds hit their village near Baqouba, and seven civilians were wounded in a mortar attack nearby, police said. North of the city, five insurgents were killed in clashes with U.S. and Iraqi forces, Iraqi officials said. Also in Baqouba, insurgents attacked a police patrol, killing two officers.

• An Iraqi army captain was killed outside his home in Diwaniyah, south of the capital, according to police.

• A suicide bomber blew up near an American convoy in Mosul, wounding two civilians, police said. A Shiite university student was killed in a drive-by shooting in the city.

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