Iraqi officers found dead

14 men disappeared last week

revenge for rape claimed

March 03, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The bodies of 14 missing police officers were found near a school in Diyala province yesterday after a group linked to al-Qaida claimed to have kidnapped members of a government security force in retribution for the alleged rape of a Sunni Arab woman.

Police confirmed that the 14 men, members of a rapid response unit, were found shot through the head with their hands tied behind their backs.

They disappeared on their way home on leave Thursday to the nearby Shiite town of Khalis, police said. Because Sunni insurgents regularly target members of the Shiite-dominated security forces in the province, the men had taken pains to travel inconspicuously, wearing civilian clothes and riding in sedans.

It was unclear whether the officers were among the 18 blindfolded men pictured earlier on a Web site by a group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq. Some of the men, whose hands were tied behind their backs, were in civilian clothes, others were in combat fatigues, and at least one wore the insignia of an Iraqi officer.

At least three Diyala officers, who said they were relatives and neighbors of the dead police officers, could not identify any of the people pictured on the Web site, said Maj. Raul Marquez, a U.S. military spokesman in Baqubah.

"The quality of the photo was low, so it is very difficult to pull out details," he said by e-mail.

A statement on the site said the men had been seized in Diyala but did not say when.

"This blessed operation is a response to the crimes committed by those infidels in their fight against the Sunnis," the statement said. "The latest crime committed by these treacherous institutions was to rape our sister Sabreen."

The group threatened to kill the men within 24 hours if the government did not hand over the officers suspected of being responsible for the rape and release all Sunni women in Interior Ministry prisons.

A second statement said the government had failed to respond to the group's demands and that its court had "ordered God's verdict applied."

Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the government does not negotiate with hostage-takers and cast doubt on the group's claims.

"We can't trust the Internet sites, and those pictures might not be authentic," he said. "Anyone can make a Web site and put any claim they want on it."

Last week, a 20-year-old woman who called herself Sabreen said in a television interview that she had been raped by three Shiite officers.

The woman's claims sparked outrage among Sunnis. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has promised an evenhanded effort to quell sectarian fighting, ordered an investigation, but within 24 hours the Shiite premier had rejected the allegations, labeling the woman a liar and an insurgent collaborator.

The government's handling of the case heightened sectarian tensions and deepened Sunnis' mistrust of the security forces, which authorities acknowledge have been infiltrated by Shiite militias. A second Sunni woman later said soldiers had raped her during a raid on her home in the northern city of Tal Afar.

In a third statement posted yesterday, the Islamic State of Iraq group said it was beginning an "honor revenge" campaign and threatened to kill 2,000 police and militiamen "for each sister that was violated."

The discovery of the bodies in Diyala province underscored fears that as U.S. and Iraqi forces focus their attention on Baghdad, insurgent and sectarian violence could increase elsewhere.

At least four bombs exploded in and around Baghdad yesterday, killing 13 Iraqis and injuring dozens. Two U.S. soldiers and an interpreter were reported killed by the explosions, and another soldier was wounded.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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