Dozens of slain captives, soldiers found in Iraq

April 21, 2005|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Solomon Moore | Patrick J. McDonnell and Solomon Moore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD - Iraq's new president confirmed yesterday the discovery of more than 50 slain hostages in the Tigris River south of the capital, while in a separate announcement, a hospital official said the bodies of 19 Iraqi soldiers were found in a soccer stadium in the western city of Haditha, apparent victims of assassination.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that outgoing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi escaped an assassination attempt last night when a suicide bomber in a car attacked his convoy near his home.

Earlier in the day, at least three car bombs struck the city, sending up huge plumes of smoke.

The fresh carnage and chaos, part of an upsurge in violence this month, came amid indications that Iraqi lawmakers were poised to announce a new transitional government after almost three months of delay. Legislators have been squabbling about unfilled Cabinet posts and other political appointments since the Jan. 30 elections.

Many Iraqis have voiced fears that the leadership void encouraged attacks by insurgents bent on fomenting instability.

"Terrorists committed crimes here," interim President Jalal Talabani said in a televised news conference.

Talabani was referring to the bodies of more than 50 people, believed to be victims of sectarian hostage-taking and killings, found in the Tigris near the town of Suwayrah, about 15 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Details of how and when they were killed and found remained sketchy. But Talabani said authorities had ascertained "the full names" of the dead as well as the identities of "those criminals who committed these crimes."

The president indicated the victims were hostages taken in the nearby village of Madaen, where, according to Shiite leaders, as many as 150 Shiites were seized last week.

The dead included men, women and children, according to news reports from Suwayrah.

Some bodies were mutilated and headless, police told Iraqi journalists. Some were found in sacks; many corpses were discovered snared on wire mesh set in the river to trap a harmful, water-borne weed, a police officer told the Al-Arabiya television channel.

As word of the gruesome find spread, news reports said, relatives of the missing went to the provincial police station of Suwayrah to identify snapshots of the dead before the bodies were placed in common graves, the news reports said.

"What was their guilt?" asked a distraught elderly woman on Al-Arabiya who said she had lost three relatives. "Each one of them has three children. May God curse those who did this."

An elderly man in Arab garb and a black-and-white checked headdress grasped a family snapshot of his missing son. "I want to find him," he declared, appearing dazed and disoriented. "Was he lost? Killed? I could not find him."

A Baghdad cleric who visited the area said one father seeking his lost son approached a diver who had glimpsed bodies below the surface of the river.

"How can I identify your son's body among so many corpses?" the diver asked the father, according to the cleric, Hussein Awadi.

The ghoulish find appeared to confirm the recent reports of mass hostage-taking of Shiite Muslims in Madaen, one of a number of violence-plagued communities southeast of the capital. The village is situated in the Tigris River Valley, a fertile agricultural belt where the nation's Sunni Arab center gives way to the vast Shiite heartland stretching south to the Persian Gulf.

The expanse of palm groves, vegetable gardens and sleepy villages stretching west to the Euphrates River is home to many Sunni Arab guerrilla cells that view Shiites as collaborators with U.S. forces, officials say.

Shiite leaders had voiced fears the hostages taken in Madaen would be slain in a bid by insurgents to rid the zone of rival Shiites. The leaders asserted that Shiites were told to evacuate the area or face more abductions and killings.

The kidnapping reports also exposed deep sectarian fissures within Iraq's ruling elite: Outgoing Interior Minister Falah Naqib, a prominent Sunni Muslim, labeled as "baseless" the hostage-taking allegations emanating from Shiite clerics and lawmakers. An Iraqi army sweep through the area in recent days turned up no hostages, the Defense Ministry said

But yesterday the nation's president-elect declared there was no longer any doubt.

"It is not true to say there were no hostages," Talabani said in a televised news conference here. "There were. They were killed, and they [the killers] threw the bodies to the Tigris."

In the largely Sunni Arab city of Haditha, about 130 miles northwest of Baghdad, the corpses of 19 Iraqi soldiers were discovered yesterday in a stadium, said Dr. Waleed Hadithi, director of Haditha General Hospital. All had apparently been kidnapped from a minibus while on leave from their posts and wearing civilian clothes. They were taken to a stadium and executed, their bodies left as an apparent warning to anyone collaborating with the U.S.-backed armed forces.

"The armed group threatened the people and the medical staff of the hospital not to evacuate the bodies from the stadium," said Hadithi. "The bodies are still in the stadium, and we cannot recover them."

Elsewhere in Iraq, at least three suicide car bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing at least four and wounding 13, according to news reports and the Interior Ministry.

Also yesterday, officials confirmed that two U.S. soldiers were killed late Tuesday and four wounded when a suicide car bomber attacked a U.S. convoy in southern Baghdad.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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