BAGHDAD — Sunni Arab politicians stepped up demands Sunday for an end to U.S. and Iraqi military operations, saying they threaten Sunni participation in next month's elections — a key U.S. goal. The U.S. command announced the deaths of three more American troops.
Meanwhile, a senior Iraqi judicial official said Sunday that Saddam Hussein's trial will resume on schedule despite the slaying of two defense lawyers and the threat by others to boycott the proceedings over an alleged lack of security.
The court is ready to appoint a new team if defense lawyers fail to appear, added Raid Juhi, one of the judges on the special tribunal trying the former dictator and others.
Saddam's team said in a statement earlier in the day that about 1,100 Iraqi lawyers had withdrawn from the defense, arguing that inadequate protection was evident after the killings of two attorneys who were defending co-defendants of the ousted leader.
U.S. commanders have said offensives, especially those in the western province of Anbar near the Syrian border, are aimed at encouraging Sunni Arabs to vote in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections without fear of intimidation by insurgents opposed to the political process.
However, several major Sunni Arab political groups insisted Sunday that such operations risk keeping Sunni turnout low because civilians are displaced by the fighting or they will be too frightened to venture out to the polls.
Some alleged the Shiite-led government was intentionally carrying out operations northeast of Baghdad to discourage Sunni Arabs from voting — a charge that Iraqi officials have denied.
"We strongly condemn the military operations and demand that they are halted immediately," Saleh al-Mutlaq of the Sunni National Dialogue Front told reporters. "We demand that the United Nations, the Arab League and humanitarian organizations stop these massacres."
Ayad al-Izi, a member of the largest Sunni Arab party, charged that raids by the Interior Ministry in religiously mixed Diyala province were politically motivated to cow Sunnis.
"Such practices are aimed at foiling the political process in the country and they ignite the strife in such areas," said al-Izi of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
The Interior Ministry said 310 people were arrested in the Diyala raids, which followed a truck bombing in a Shiite village that killed about 20 people. It did not say whether all those arrested were Sunnis.
In a statement Sunday, the U.S. command said two Marines were killed the day before by a bomb west of Baghdad, and an American soldier died in a vehicle accident in western Iraq. The latest deaths brought to at least 2,065 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The U.S. command said Sunday that U.S. troops will continue to search for Saddam's chief deputy, casting doubt on an online claim that the suspected architect of the Iraqi insurgency had died.
A Baathist Web site on Saturday reported that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri had died the previous day; another Web site, also purporting to carry statements from the banned party, said al-Douri was alive and apologized for the false report of his death.
Despite the rising casualty toll, U.S. officials have been encouraged because so many Sunni Arab groups have decided to run in the December elections, hoping that will induce members of the Sunni-dominated insurgency to stop fighting. That would allow U.S. and other coalition troops to begin heading home next year.
Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the Jan. 30 elections, enabling the majority Shiites and their Kurdish allies to dominate the current parliament. That in turn ratcheted up sectarian tensions and reprisal killings.
Many Sunni politicians now consider the January boycott a disaster for their community. But Sunni hard-liners — including insurgents and many clerics — remain adamantly opposed to the political process.
"Our position is unchanged," Sheik Mohammed Bashar al-Faydhi, spokesman for the hard-line clerical Association of Muslim Scholars, told reporters Sunday. "We will not participle in the political process as long as the occupation exists," although he suggested that might change if Washington offered a timetable for withdrawal.
President Bush has refused to set a timetable, saying that would play into the hands of insurgents. However, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi said Friday that U.S. troops could begin leaving in significant numbers sometime next year.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani predicted in an interview televised Sunday in London that the 8,500 British soldiers could be gone by the end of 2006 — although he was not speaking for the government.
Talabani told Britain's ITV that no Iraqis wanted foreign troops to remain indefinitely, adding that Iraq's own soldiers should be ready to take over from British forces in the southern provinces around Basra by the end of next year.
The statement announcing the withdrawal of the 1,100 Iraqi lawyers also said the Saddam trial should be delayed because the government is not providing sufficient protection. The government says protection was offered but the lawyers refused.
Jordanian lawyer Ziad al-Khasawneh, who was once part of the defense team, said the statement was issued by most of the 1,500 Iraqi lawyers who were enlisted for Saddam's defense — most of them helping research legal precedents, prepare briefs and perform other tasks outside the courtroom.
In Baghdad, a senior court official, Raid Juhi, said the withdrawal would not affect the proceedings.
"The court will continue to give legal consultation through naming defense lawyers in case the defense team does not show up" when the trial resumes, Juhi told AP by telephone.
Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial before a special Iraqi tribunal, charged in the 1982 deaths of 148 Shiite Muslims in Dujail after an assassination attempt against Saddam in that town north of Baghdad.