BAGHDAD, Iraq - In the deadliest ambush yet on Iraq's armed forces, guerrillas killed dozens of unarmed Iraqi soldiers, many apparently forced onto their stomachs and shot execution-style along a remote eastern highway near the Iranian border, Iraqi officials said yesterday.
Estimates of the death toll from the Saturday incident ranged from three dozen to 51.
Iraqi officials said gunmen disguised in Iraqi military uniforms stopped the U.S-trained soldiers as they rode home in a convoy of minibuses Saturday evening. The soldiers, who had just completed boot camp in Kirkush and were starting home leave, had rolled up to a fake checkpoint just after nightfall, officials said.
The young recruits were pulled off the buses, forced to lie prone in rows of 12, ordered to place their hands on their heads and methodically executed, according to an account by Iraqi police. Some apparently tried to run away.
"Most of them were shot in their backs and the back of their heads," said Abdul-Hassan Mandali, mayor of the county in which the men were killed.
In an interview with the Arabic satellite channel Al-Arabiya, Diyala's deputy Gov. Aquil Hamid al-Adili said he believed the ambush was an inside job.
"There was probably collusion among the soldiers or other groups," he said. "Otherwise, the gunmen would not have gotten the information about the soldiers' departure from their training camp and that they were unarmed."
A Web site used by Islamic extremists announced that militants loyal to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the killings. The message posted by the group calling itself al-Qaida in Iraq claimed that it had killed 48 "apostates" in the attack.
"The mujahedeen killed them all, stole two vehicles and the salaries they had just received from their masters," said the statement. Its authenticity could not be verified.
`A brave American'
Yesterday, an early morning mortar attack on a military base near Baghdad International Airport killed a U.S. State Department officer as he slept.
Ed Seitz, an agent with the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, was killed about 5 a.m. at Camp Victory while an unspecified number of people were wounded in the explosion. Seitz is the first U.S. diplomatic employee known to be killed in the war. A 16-year veteran of the State Department, he was posted at the base and was struck by chance.
In Beijing, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described Seitz as "a brave American, dedicated to his country and to a brighter future for the people of Iraq."
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said Seitz was a "committed professional" who served with distinction.
"He came to Iraq, as did his fellow Americans here, to help the Iraqis defeat terrorism and the insurgency, establish democracy, and rebuild their economy," Negroponte said.
Meanwhile yesterday, details of the Iraqi recruits' killings remained unavailable - and in dispute.
Iraqi police officials estimated that as many as 51 soldiers were killed, while U.S. military sources placed the death toll at three dozen.
U.S. military sources said the incident occurred about 60 miles south of Baqouba in neighboring Wasit province, an area patrolled by Polish and Ukrainian troops.
Iraqi officials said the killings occurred roughly 95 miles northeast of Baghdad, in the turbulent province of Diyala. Police in that area, particularly in the provincial capital of Baqouba, have been targets of assassinations, car bombs and drive-by shootings. Eleven police recruits were recently shot dead there while riding in a minibus.
In Saturday's attack, most of the young recruits wore civilian clothes and were headed to southern Iraq when they were killed. They were identified by their military IDs, said Mandali Police Chief Subhi Beyran.
Villagers in the area called police after hearing gunfire sometime between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday.
Iraqi government spokeswoman Maha Malik said witnesses told investigators that insurgents attacked two vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades. The shells of two burned-out minibuses were found at the scene. Witnesses told police that the attackers drove away in one or more buses.
Yesterday, the bodies were driven by truck to an Iraqi national guard facility in Mandali, where they were placed on long sheets for identification. Onlookers wept as the corpses, their civilian clothing stained with blood, were lined up.
Most of the soldiers came from poor families in the primarily Shiite Muslim cities of Basra, Amara and Nasiriyah. An Iraqi security official said, "It appears that they were ambushed by a large, well-organized force with good intelligence."
Evidence at the scene suggested that about a dozen soldiers attempted to flee from the militants before they were shot.
Unclear why unarmed