BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's fugitive Sunni vice president was sentenced yesterday to death by hanging on charges he masterminded death squads against rivals in a terror trial that has fuelled sectarian tensions in the country. Underscoring the instability, insurgents unleashed an onslaught of bombings and shootings across Iraq, killing at least 64 people in a dozen cities.
It's unlikely that the morning attacks were timed to coincide with the afternoon verdict that capped a monthslong case against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a longtime foe of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Still, taken together, the violence and verdict could energize Sunni insurgents bent on returning Iraq to the brink of civil war by targeting Shiites and undermining the government.
Al-Hashemi fled to Turkey in the months after the Shiite-led government accused him of playing a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011 -- years in which the country was mired in retaliatory sectarian violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime. Most of the attacks were allegedly carried out by al-Hashemi's bodyguards and other employees, and largely targeted government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims.
The vice president declined to immediately comment on the verdict after meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara. He said he would "tackle this issue in a statement" in coming hours.
The politically charged case -- which was announced the day after US troops withdrew from the country last December -- sparked a government crisis and fuelled Sunni Muslim and Kurdish resentment against al-Maliki, whom critics say is monopolizing power.
Violence has ebbed significantly, but insurgents continue to stage high-profile bombings and shooting rampages. Al-Qaida's Iraq branch has promised a comeback in predominantly Sunni areas from which it was routed by the U.S. and its local allies after sectarian fighting peaked in 2007.
"These attacks show al-Qaida's ability to hit any place in Iraq and at any time," said Ali Salem, 40, an elementary school teacher in Baghdad. "The lack of security could take us back to zero."
The worst violence on Sunday targeted security forces, with gunmen killing soldiers at an army post in the central Iraqi city of Dujail and bombing police recruits waiting in line to apply for jobs outside Kirkuk in the country's north -- both former insurgent strongholds.
At least 64 people were killed and more than 285 wounded, according to reports from police and hospital officials. No group immediately claimed responsibility, but Iraq's Interior Ministry blamed al-Qaida in Iraq.