Iraqi army tries to stop retaliation

Police, mob fight back after truck bombings

March 29, 2007|By Ned Parker and Ruaa Al-Zarary | Ned Parker and Ruaa Al-Zarary,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Baghdad -- The Iraqi army scrambled yesterday to stop sectarian violence in the northern city of Tal Afar, where Shiite Muslim policemen, aided by an angry mob, killed at least 70 Sunnis in revenge for a pair of truck bombings a day earlier.

The police went on the rampage late Tuesday and early yesterday, roaming Tal Afar's Sunni neighborhood of Wihda after two truck bombs exploded, killing 85 people, most of them Shiite Muslim Turkmen, and leaving 183 wounded. Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the bombings.

The rampage in Tal Afar, a predominantly Turkmen city once praised by the Bush administration as an example of successful pacification, came amid an apparent strategy by militants to strike areas outside the capital. U.S. forces have shifted to the capital as part of a new security plan there.

It was the deadliest episode of sectarian revenge killings in Iraq since last October, when a five-day rampage left more than 100 Shiites and Sunnis dead.

Iraqi officials said the Tal Afar attackers were policemen in civilian clothes, but suggested other elements may have been involved. "Mostly it was [off-duty] policemen. The Ministry of Interior is making an investigation," said Lt. Gen. Nassar Abadi, the deputy chief of staff of Iraq's armed forces.

Witnesses said the marauding gunmen wrested males from Sunni houses and shot them.

"Ten gunmen wearing civilian uniforms stormed our house. I hadn't seen their faces before; they took my brother into a separate room upstairs and put me with the women," said a wounded man in the Tal Afar hospital.

"I heard the gunshots and I found my brother dead, two bullets in the head. I was rushing to see my brother when they opened fire on me. I got two bullets in my leg. They ran away after that."

The victims included men, women and children, said Nineveh province governor Duraid Kashmoula.

"Some of these irresponsible policemen and angry people did this stemming from their anger and passion, but mostly it was policemen who committed this unacceptable and irresponsible act. We totally disagree with such attacks," the governor said.

"One of those angry policemen lost five of his family members in this explosion and he lost his mind. They were irresponsible reactions and we are going to follow this up."

The killing spree lasted about 30 minutes as policemen fired their rifles on families in their homes, the governor said. He blamed the truck bomb masterminds for provoking the shootings.

"The purpose of the terrorists was to create conflict. The real aim of the terrorists was to create fitna [fighting] between Sunni and Shia," he added.

Dr. Khalil Rasheed from Tal Afar hospital said a woman with a cut on her hand told him that 10 gunmen, some of them masked and in civilian clothes, burst into her house after her son opened the door.

"They immediately opened fire at my husband and ran away. They killed him in front of me and my children," Rasheed said the woman told him.

The dead ranged in age from 20 to 50 and were shot execution-style, another doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They are now cast on the ground because there is not enough room for them in the hospital," the doctor said of the dead. "I haven't seen something like this in my life before. Even when the Americans conducted raids in Tal Afar, it wasn't as horrible as this."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formed a committee of defense and interior ministry officials to investigate, the U.S. military said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces recaptured Tal Afar from insurgents in September 2005. Six months later, President Bush heralded it as a success story, but the city, not far from the Syrian border, provides an attractive way station for fighters slipping inside Iraq and has since fallen back into violence.

Dominated by Turkmen Shiites, the city is a microcosm of Iraq, with a volatile mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

The Iraqi army's largely Sunni Kurdish 3rd Division imposed a curfew on Tal Afar, placing themselves between the Sunni and Shiite sections of town in order to stop the violence.

Ned Parker and Ruaa Al-Zarary write for the Los Angeles Times.

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