BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ In an unprecedented move, Iraqi authorities charged 57 members of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police force, including a general, in the alleged torture of hundreds of detainees at a prison in east Baghdad, the Interior Ministry announced Tuesday.
Torture is considered widespread among the poorly trained police force, which has suffered heavy losses at the hands of Sunni insurgents and criminal gangs, but Tuesday's announcement marked the first time the government has pressed charges. Iraqi police are accused of close ties to the Shiite death squads, whose daily abductions and killings fuel sectarian violence convulsing the country.
Some officers were accused of abetting the violence by allowing the gunmen to violate curfews and pass through checkpoints.
The concerns were underscored by the discovery of a police torture chamber in Baghdad last year, and by the apparent complicity of police in a mass kidnapping of Sunni workers that prompted authorities to take an entire police brigade out of service for retraining.
Among those charged in the torture at Site No. 4, the prison in eastern Baghdad, were a general, 19 officers, 20 noncommissioned officers and 17 patrolmen or civilian employees.
Authorities reported finding the bullet-riddled bodies Tuesday of 15 apparent death squad victims floating in the Tigris River south of Baghdad, all blindfolded and bound at the wrists and ankles. The victims apparently were tortured before being shot to death.
Hundreds of such killings have been recorded in the capital since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February ignited revenge sectarian killings.
In the latest round of sectarian attacks, police said two mortar shells slammed into a coffee shop in a Shiite neighborhood in north Baghdad late Tuesday, killing at least 14 people and wounding 16. The attack appeared to have been in response to mortar fire on a Sunni neighborhood across the Tigris earlier in the day that killed seven people and wounded 25.
A top Shiite leader said Tuesday that Iraq's neighbors could play a positive role in improving the deteriorating security situation in the country but first they have to be convinced that U.S. troops are not a danger to them.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest bloc in parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, was referring to Iran and Syria, counties that have been accused by the United States of aiding a three-year insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people.
``As you know, the lack of stability in a country could be the result of an internal or external factor. Some neighboring countries could have a negative effect on the situation at the same time these countries could play a positive role,'' al-Hakim told The Associated Press during an interview in his heavily guarded house overlooking the Tigris.
His comments came a month after former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who heads the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, suggested Washington should engage Syria and Iran in the effort to pacify Iraq.
Iran and Syria strongly deny being involved in aiding the insurgency in Iraq. Syria says its long desert border with Iraq makes it impossible to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into its eastern neighbor and accused U.S. and Iraqi forces of failing to police the frontier.
Still, a number of significant members of the former regime of Saddam Hussein are believed to be living in Syria.
Syria and Iran, who are both isolated by Washington, were worried after U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq that their turn could be next.
``These countries are seriously worried because of the presence of multinational forces (in Iraq) and because of their goals and therefore there is a need to convince these countries that those forces do not form any danger,'' said al-Hakim, who lived in exile in Iran until after Saddam was ousted in 2003.
Meanwhile, a somber and subdued Saddam called on Iraqis to ``forgive, reconcile and shake hands'' as he returned to court Tuesday for his Kurdish genocide trial two days after being sentenced to death in a separate case.
Iran urged Iraq to disregard calls for clemency and hang the ousted president, saying Saddam's ``very existence is anti-human.''
The startling call from Saddam came after he rose during the afternoon session to question the testimony of the witnesses, who told of a mass killing of Iraqi Kurds in the 1987-88 Operation Anfal crackdown on Kurdish guerrillas.
Saddam then calmly spoke about how the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ asked for forgiveness for those who had opposed them.
``I call on all Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds, to forgive, reconcile and shake hands,'' Saddam said before taking his seat.
The former president's demeanor was far different from his combative performance Sunday, when another court convicted him in the deaths of about 150 Shiite Muslims following an assassination attempt against him in the town of Dujail in 1982.
Saddam and two others were sentenced to death by hanging. Four co-defendants received lesser sentences and one was acquitted. Saddam thundered ``Long live the people and death to their enemies'' after sentencing.
On Tuesday, however, Saddam sat quietly along with the six other defendants in the Anfal case, calmly taking notes as four Kurds testified.
Saddam's goal in making the statement was unclear.
However, the remarks followed at least two other public declarations by Saddam in recent weeks in which he urged national unity _ perhaps to secure a more favorable place in history or to encourage contacts between the Americans and his supporters.