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Sectarian Strife Rises in Iraq as Dozens of Bodies Found

58 Corpses Pulled From Tigris River; 19 Guardsmen Found Dead at Soccer Stadium in Sunni Town

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page A17

BAGHDAD, April 20 -- The bodies of 19 Iraqi soldiers were found piled in a soccer stadium in western Iraq on Wednesday, a day after they were captured by insurgents, authorities said. It was not clear when or where they had been killed.

At the same time, police announced the discovery of 58 corpses, all suspected victims of insurgents, floating in the Tigris River near a village where Shiite Muslim leaders had reported the abduction of civilians by Sunni Muslim extremists.

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In the capital, there were conflicting reports that a suicide bomber had attacked a convoy carrying Iraq's caretaker prime minister, Ayad Allawi, Wednesday night, or had detonated a bomb outside his Baghdad home. Officials said Allawi was unhurt and denied that a bomb had exploded near him.

The 77 deaths, in addition to explosions that targeted Iraqi and U.S. troops in central and western Iraq, marked a day in which resurgent violence far outstripped the capacity of the country's fledgling security forces.

In a statement that threatened to exacerbate sectarian tensions, President Jalal Talabani told reporters in the capital that the corpses pulled from the Tigris were those of kidnapped Shiite civilians.

The bodies of the Iraqi soldiers were found in the overwhelmingly Sunni town of Haditha, 125 miles northwest of Baghdad in Anbar province, a stronghold of the Sunni-led resistance to Iraqi and U.S. forces.

The soldiers had been in a convoy of six minibuses carrying Iraqi troops to Haditha Tuesday to investigate reports of armed men in the area, according to a witness, Ali Aswad, a former military officer. Aswad's account was confirmed by an Iraqi army captain and other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Forty armed men with grenade launchers waylaid the convoy, Aswad and the captain said. Four of the vehicles sped off to safety, leaving behind comrades in two vehicles caught in the ambush, officials said.

Iraqi forces returned shortly afterward with U.S. reinforcements but found no sign of the attackers, the ambushed troops or their buses, Aswad said.

Residents found the bodies of 19 soldiers piled near a goal post of the town's stadium, witnesses and officers said.

By late Wednesday afternoon, the bodies had been removed and Iraqi soldiers surrounded the stadium. Authorities said there was no sign of four officers who were among those ambushed. Iraqi soldiers imposed a shoot-on-sight 7 p.m. curfew on the town.

The incident follows the ambush killings of 49 Iraqi National Guardsmen in October and another 18 in January.

U.S. forces, however, said they had no information on any killings in Haditha.

Iraqi forces, with less training, experience and protective armor than their U.S. counterparts, have borne the brunt of insurgent attacks, which are intensifying after a weeks-long lull following parliamentary elections on Jan. 30.


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