BAGHDAD — An Iraqi court Thursday sentenced 11 people to death by hanging after convicting them of carrying out the August bombings of two government ministries that killed more than 100 people in the heart of Baghdad.
The attacks – the deadliest to that point in over a year and a half – raised questions about the ability of Iraqi forces to protect the country. They came less than two months after the U.S. handed over control of the country's cities to local security forces.
The bombings and two more massive attacks since have shaken Iraqis' confidence in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has staked his political reputation on keeping Iraq safe as he seeks to secure a second term. The swift convictions were announced less than two months before Iraqis vote in a nationwide parliamentary election.
Despite tangible security gains over the past two years, fear of another major bombing is never far from the surface. Thursday's sentences came amid heightened security concerns after a crackdown earlier this week that brought parts of Baghdad to a standstill.
Just hours after the sentences were announced, a series of deadly bomb attacks struck the holy Shiite city of Najaf, underscoring the challenges facing Iraq's security forces. At least three people were reported killed and scores more injured, though the death toll could rise.
"I expect more injured people will die because they were wounded seriously," said Dr. Mohammed al-Kharsan, director of al-Hakim hospital in Najaf.
Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said a criminal court in Baghdad's eastern Rusafah district found the 11 defendants guilty of financing, planning and participating in the Aug. 19 bombings that devastated the foreign and finance ministries.
There have since been two other massive attacks in Baghdad targeting government buildings, in October and December. Those attacks together killed more than 280 people and injured hundreds more.
The blasts have sparked outrage among many Iraqis, who wondered how bombers could have driven through an area dotted with checkpoints to reach sites that were supposed to be among the safest in the city.
Bayrkdar said the defendants have a month to appeal the death sentences, which were handed down with Thursday's ruling. He declined to provide details about those convicted, and did not name the judges, citing security precautions.
An interior ministry official said one of the convicted is Ishaq Mohammed, who was released from Camp Bucca, a now shuttered U.S. detention facility in southern Iraq, about a year ago.
The official, who said most of those convicted had past criminal records, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Evidence against the defendants included explosives, detonators and car bombs that were found at locations where they were arrested, Bayrkdar said. He said the trial took place over three court sessions starting Dec. 29.
No date had been set for their execution.
Shortly after the August attacks, the Iraqi military released what it said was the confession of a Sunni man identified as a senior member of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party. The military said the man admitted to supervising the attack on the Finance Ministry.
In the televised confession, the 57-year-old suspect identified himself as Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim and said he was a Baath party member and former police officer before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Ibrahim said the operation was ordered by a Baath party operative in Syria in a bid "to destabilize the regime." Iraqi authorities said at the time more than 10 people comprising the whole network involved in the attacks had been arrested.
Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the capital's top military spokesman, said those convicted Thursday were the same suspects taken into custody shortly after the explosions.
He said they have links both to the Baath party and al-Qaida in Iraq. He refused to answer questions about their sect.
The question of what to do with former members of the Baath party has been a particularly sensitive issue in Iraq, and a major hurdle to national reconciliation efforts. Al-Maliki has consistently painted the bombings last August, October and December as being the work of Baathists.
Persistent security risks extend beyond the capital.
Three explosions, including one caused by a car bomb, rocked the southern city of Najaf around 5:45 p.m. near a commercial area, police said. Witnesses said the blasts came within minutes of each other.
Mohammed Sami, 22, was selling yoghurt from a stall on the street when his leg was hurt by the first explosion.
"Many people came to save me," he said. "But after a few minutes the second explosion occurred and we all ran to nearest alley to hide." That was followed by a third blast five minutes later, he said.
At least three people were confirmed killed and 77 others were injured, according to al-Kharsan, the hospital director.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.