Baghdad, Iraq Iraqi officials on Saturday announced an all-day curfew for today in Baghdad and four provinces, fearing that the expected announcement of a verdict in the trial of former president Saddam Hussein could inflame nationalist and sectarian passions and escalate the daily deluge of violence.
"We hope that the verdict will give this man what he deserves for the crimes he committed against the Iraqi people," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in remarks carried on state television. Saying a verdict in the 12-month trial would be announced today, al-Maliki called on people "to remain calm and express their happiness in an appropriate way in this current situation, in a way that does not risk their lives."
If found guilty, Saddam, 69, could be sentenced to death by hanging. Appeals could take months or years.
The declaration of a curfew came as Iraq's Interior Ministry announced the deaths of 53 suspected members of the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq in a pitched, four-hour battle with police Saturday afternoon in Tuwaitha, just south of Baghdad.
An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said four police officers were killed in the operation, which he said was launched to free people reportedly held hostage by insurgents. Nine officers were wounded and 16 insurgents were captured in the raid, but no hostages were found, Khalaf said.
No matter what the verdict in Saddam's trial, security officials and political analysts say it could be a catalyst for renewed clashes between Shiite Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, and Sunni Arabs, who account for about 20 percent. Saddam is a Sunni Arab, and during his 24-year rule, the Sunni-dominated Baath Party suppressed the Shiite majority.
Sheik Ismael al-Hadeedy, head of a Sunni Arab tribe in northern Iraq, said the court's verdict "will be accepted by some and rejected by others, but this is democracy which we had dreamed of."
"But the question remains, will it coincide with the trend toward reconciliation and the achievement of security and stability for Iraq?" he said. "In this context, the trial and the verdict are a test for all of us."
Hoping to tamp down any revenge or celebratory carnage today, the prime minister announced people and vehicles would be barred from the streets in the capital and the nearby provinces of Salahuddin and Diyala from 6 a.m. today until further notice, according to Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman.
On Saturday in Baghdad, at least 32 people were killed and 73 wounded in four car bombings, two roadside explosions, four mortar attacks, a drive-by shooting and other violence, according to an Interior Ministry official and news service reports. Elsewhere in the country, at least 12 people were killed and 52 injured in attacks, in addition to the battle south of Baghdad.
The bloodshed followed the discovery of at least 63 bodies in the capital in a 24-hour period that ended Friday, according to an Interior Ministry official. He said all of the victims, who were found in 12 parts of the city, had been tortured.