Iraq Probes Police-Death Squad Ties

A woman react to the carnage at the site of a bomb blast in Baghdad's Camp Sara, a mainly Christian neighborhood, Wednesday Oct. 4, 2006.
AP Photo
Iraqi authorities for the first time pulled a brigade of around 700 policemen out of service Wednesday for investigation of suspected ties to death squads, aiming to signal the government's seriousness in cleansing Baghdad of sectarian violence.

The government move came amid steadily mounting violence: A U.S. military spokesman said the past week had seen the highest number of car bombs and roadside bombs in Baghdad this year — and he warned the trend was rising.

Car bombs, as well as other explosions and shootings, killed 32 people across the country. In the day's deadliest attack, a string of two bombs and an explosive-packed vehicle blew up in a district of stores and auto shops in a mainly Christian neighborhood of Baghdad, killing 12 people and wounding 56, police said.

Hours later, after sunset and the end of the day's Ramadan fast, gunmen opened fire on a popular cafe in a northeastern part of the capital, killing four patrons and wounding seven others.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers in gunfire a day earlier in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk — bringing to 17 the number of Americans killed in combat since Saturday.

The suspended police brigade was responsible for a region of northeast Baghdad where gunmen on Sunday kidnapped 24 workers from a frozen food factory. Hours later, the bodies of seven of the workers were found dumped in a district miles away.

Sunni officials blamed Shiite militiamen in the attack and accused the Shiite-led police of turning a blind eye to their operations.

The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said the police brigade in the area had been ordered to stand down and was undergoing retraining. He said some were being investigated and that any find to have militia ties would be removed.

"The government of Iraq was very clear as we go through this process that if that (unit) comes out at 30 percent of what it went in with, that's OK with the government of Iraq," he told a Baghdad news conference.

"There is clear evidence that there was some complicity in allowing death squad elements to move freely when, in fact, they were supposed to have been impeding their movement," Caldwell said.

He said problems with the unit had emerged during a broad brigade-by-brigade assessment of police in Baghdad carried out by the U.S. military.

The brigade had about 650-700 members, and the Iraqi Interior Ministry said Tuesday that its commander of the unit, a lieutenant colonel, has been detained for investigation. The major general who commands the battalion that includes the brigade has been suspended temporarily and ordered transferred.

Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the chief ministry spokesman, said a random selection of troops in the suspended unit are being investigated for ties to militias.

The sectarian spiral of revenge killings between Shiites and Sunnis has become the deadliest violence in Iraq, with thousands slain in recent months. "Over the past three months, murders and executions (by death squads) have caused the majority of civilian deaths in Iraq," Caldwell said.

The violence has also threatened to undermine the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as Shiite and Sunni parties in his coalition accuse each other of backing militias.

On Monday, al-Maliki announced this week a new security plan to unite the feuding parties, by creating local committees in which Sunnis and Shiites will work together to manage efforts to stop the violence on a district-by-district level.

But contentious details of the plan still must be worked out — and Shiite and Sunni parties for a second day on Wednesday put off negotiations.

At the same time, Sunni-led insurgents have continued their attacks targeting civilians, Iraqi officials and U.S. and Iraqi troops.

Just before noon Wednesday, a car bomb and two roadside bombs blew up in the span of 10 minutes in the mainly Christian Camp Sara neighborhood, a street of stores and auto shops. The blasts collapsed part of a nearby building, and cars were burning as rescue workers piled corpses into an ambulance.

An increasingly common insurgent tactic is to detonate one bomb to draw rescue workers and onlookers, then to explode a second device to cause mass casualties.

About an hour earlier, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying a deputy of the industry minister as it drove in a district neighboring Camp Sara. The blast killed three guards and wounded nine people, though the deputy was unhurt.

Caldwell said the number of car bombs and roadside bombs that went off or had been found and defused over the past week was the highest this year. He declined to give firm numbers, but said, "The trend line has been up over the last couple of months."

"Unfortunately, as expected, attacks have steadily increased in Baghdad during these past weeks," he said, though the rise in casualties did not grow as quickly. "The overall effectiveness of attacks, or the enemy's ability to inflict casualties or cause damage, has decreased and has been decreasing." He would not provide specific numbers.

But he also said the military has killed or captured an increasing number of suspected members of al Qaeda in Iraq, the most feared Sunni insurgent group. In September, 110 al Qaeda suspects were killed and 520 detained — including a driver of the group's leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, captured on Sept. 28.

"We feel very comfortable that we're continuing to move forward very deliberately in an effort to find (al-Masri) and kill or capture him," Caldwell said.