Gunmen ambush Turkish officers, killing 4

Northern city of Mosul becoming new center of insurgency in Iraq

December 18, 2004|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Masked gunmen in the turbulent Iraqi city of Mosul ambushed a car carrying Turkish police officers yesterday, shooting three to death and decapitating a fourth who tried to run away, witnesses said.

In a daytime attack reminiscent of the killing in March of four U.S. security contractors in Fallujah, militants looted the policemen's weapons and set the car ablaze before escaping.

After the attack, residents stood around the burning white Chevrolet Caprice as the bodies lay face down in the street.

For the past six weeks, Mosul, Iraqi's third-largest city, has exploded in violence, transforming from a relatively quiet region into a battleground between U.S. forces and insurgents.

Since early November, militants have attacked police stations, detonated car bombs and assassinated dozens of local security personnel and civilians. Over the past week, eight bodies were discovered in the area. Several were shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs. Their bodies were dumped by the side of the road.

Yesterday's attackers also wounded two passengers who were believed to be riding in a second car that escaped, officials and witnesses said.

One of the occupants of the first car appeared to have been Iraqi. A witness on the scene, Qoteiba Mohammed, told Agence France-Presse that the driver of the car pleaded for his life before being shot.

"I'm an Iraqi, from Baghdad, don't shoot!" Mohammed said he heard the man scream.

The Turkish police officers had been providing security for the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad and were likely returning home, a U.S. official said. Turkish Embassy officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The ambush, the latest in a string of attacks that have killed nearly 70 Turkish truck drivers and contractors in Iraq this year, came as Turkey was celebrating a long-awaited agreement to discuss admission into the European Union.

Mosul emerged as a hot zone after U.S. troops invaded Fallujah last month.

Intelligence officials say many insurgents and foreign militants operating in Iraq shifted from the besieged Fallujah and the surrounding Al Anbar province to Mosul, which is about 225 miles north of the capital.

The Mosul region "is right at the tipping point," said another U.S. official who requested anonymity. "It's a very bad situation. It's teetering back and forth, on the edge of being a second Anbar, a full-scale war."

But U.S. military officials reiterated yesterday that the invasion of Fallujah had sapped the strength of the insurgency, even though some pockets of resistance remain. U.S. troops stepped up their operations in Mosul last month to prevent militants from taking control of the city.

"Nobody said that once we finished with Fallujah that it would all be over," said Lt. Col. Steve Boylon, a military spokesmen. "The insurgency is still the hardest battle to fight, especially in an urban environment."

Separately yesterday, insurgents battled Iraqi security forces in Kirkuk, where ethnic tensions between Kurdish and Arab residents have long been simmering. Militants clashed with the Iraqi National Guard in the city center last night during a brief gunbattle.

One bystander, a female teacher, was killed in the crossfire, said Maj. Gen. Anwar Hamid Amin, commander of the guard in Kirkuk.

Also yesterday, a government official said that Saddam Hussein's defense minister, who surrendered to U.S. forces last year, will join another notorious general - known as Chemical Ali - in the dock when judicial proceedings against top figures of the Baathist regime open next week.

Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad gave himself up in September 2003 at a coalition military base in Mosul. He was not considered to be a war crimes suspect, and many had expected that he would be freed after being questioned.

In contrast, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who earned the nickname Chemical Ali after using poison gas to kill thousands of Kurds in the 1980s, is considered a leading defendant.

"Chemical Ali and Sultan will be the first to face the hearings," the official, who is familiar with the proceedings, told the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy confirmed the name of an American contractor taken hostage six weeks ago in Baghdad - a man who has not been seen or heard from since - identifying him as Roy Hallums, a 56-year-old worker for a Saudi company that does catering for the Iraqi army.

His wife, Susan Hallums of Corona, Calif., said in a telephone interview yesterday that she has not heard from the kidnappers.

"I want to plead for his life and send out prayers and hope that he will be released," said Hallums, who is separated from her husband, the father of their two daughters.

Twelve Americans have been kidnapped or are missing in Iraq. At least three Americans have been killed - all beheaded.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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