BAGHDAD — An Iraqi court dropped charges Monday against two former Health Ministry officials accused of allowing Shiite death squads to use ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings.
The three-judge panel cited a lack of evidence in its decision, which came despite serious reports of witness intimidation.
Minority Sunnis have viewed the case as a major test of the judiciary in this Shiite-dominated country, and the ruling was likely to hurt U.S. efforts to promote national reconciliation between the Muslim sects.
A lawmaker with Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi's Sunni Islamic Party called the decision a "betrayal of the Iraqi judicial system."
"We do believe that all the eyewitnesses were under the influence of blackmail, threats and fears," Ziyad al-Ani told The Associated Press.
The United States reserved judgment on the ruling.
Many parts of the process appeared credible, and the "very fact that the charges were investigated and brought to trial reflects modest progress toward the rule of law," U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said.
"However, there remain serious allegations of witness intimidation and other irregularities in this case that have not yet been fully or transparently resolved within the Iraqi system," Reeker said.
Former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili and Brig. Gen. Hameed al-Shimmari, who was in charge of the ministry's security force, were found not guilty of kidnapping, murder, and corruption charges.
The defendants remained in American military custody, however, and the charges could be reinstated if prosecutors successfully appeal the decision.
"The court has decided to release both al-Zamili and al-Shimmari for lack of evidence," prosecutor Ghadanfar Mahmoud said. "As for the accounts given by the witnesses who attended the trial, they were undocumented and not solid enough because they were based on hearsay."
One of al-Zamili's lawyers, Ameer al-Kinani, said "there was not a single piece of evidence against the defendants."
The trial began Sunday after a delay because witnesses failed to show up for the start of the case last month. Officials at the time did not say why the witnesses did not appear, but they noted that Iraq does not have a witness protection program.
Al-Zamili and al-Shimmari were accused of using their positions to help the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, carry out sectarian killing sprees.
The allegations highlighted some of the worst sectarian violence that broke out after the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing by Sunni insurgents of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
After al-Zamili's arrest last year, the U.S. military said _ without mentioning his name _ that he was believed to have siphoned millions of dollars from the ministry to the Mahdi Army "to support sectarian attacks and violence targeting Iraqi citizens."
Militiamen also were allowed to use government hospitals and clinics to gather information on Iraqis seeking treatment, and "those Iraqis that were discovered to be Sunnis would later be targeted for attacks," the military has said. Ambulances also were allegedly employed to transport and kidnap victims.
The number of execution-style killings blamed on the so-called sectarian death squads has dropped sharply since al-Sadr declared a cease-fire in late August.
But other types of attacks are still routine.
Iraq police and hospital officials said at least 24 people were killed and dozens were wounded Monday when two bombs exploded in different parts of Baghdad. The U.S. military, however, reported a far lower casualty figure.
In the deadliest attack, a car bomber killed at least 22 people and wounded 43 in central Baghdad's Bab al-Mudham neighborhood on the eastern bank of the Tigris, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The U.S. military reported that nine people had died and seven were wounded. It was not immediately clear why the numbers were so different.
In the other bombing, a man drove a minibus toward the headquarters of the Interior Ministry's 4th Brigade, a special rapid reaction force based in Baghdad's eastern Zayouna neighborhood. The blast killed at least two Iraqi soldiers and wounded five other people, the U.S. military said. AP images showed massive damage to homes in the neighborhood.
Iraqi soldiers manning a checkpoint managed to prevent the minibus from entering the compound, the military said.
Also Monday, the U.S. military reported finding a grave with 14 bodies, believed to be members of the Iraqi security forces executed by al-Qaida in Iraq.