By Nelson Hernandez and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 14, 2006
BAGHDAD, April 13 -- Gunmen ambushed a large police convoy in a rural area north of the capital on Thursday, killing at least 17 officers, according to a police lieutenant. Elsewhere, an attack on a Shiite Muslim shrine and the assassination of a Sunni Arab politician's brother threatened to further inflame sectarian tensions as Iraqi factions struggle to form a national government.
The brazen assault on a convoy of 50 to 60 police cars erupted outside the town of Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, said 1st Lt. Mouayiad Shukor, an officer with the police rapid reaction force in Najaf province.
Shukor said approximately 90 officers from four stations in Najaf had just picked up new cars in Taji and were traveling south to get new weapons and ammunition when they found the main road blocked by U.S. troops. The Americans told the Iraqis that they had discovered a bomb on the road and told them to take a detour through the countryside. The Americans followed them part of the way before letting them go on alone, Shukor said.
A roadside bomb then exploded, and attackers hiding in the orchards and farmhouses flanking the road opened fire on the convoy with Kalashnikov assault rifles and RPK machine guns. Over the course of a two-hour firefight, all the police cars were destroyed, Shukor said, and survivors fled to a nearby military base on foot and by hitching rides.
Shukor said that only five of the 22 men in his unit returned to Najaf alive. The governor of Najaf, Asad Sultan Abu Gulal, and the police chief for the area, Brig. Gen. Abbas Moadal, both confirmed that an attack had taken place, but neither official would say how many police officers had been killed.
As ambulances loaded with wounded policemen trickled back into Najaf, a team of special police commandos guarded the entrance to the local hospital and refused to allow journalists inside.
In eastern Baghdad, gunmen also killed Mahmoud al-Hashimi, the brother of Tariq al-Hashimi, the secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, as he was driving with a friend, the Associated Press reported.
Baha Aldin Naqshabandi, a party official, confirmed the attack in a telephone interview. "An Opel car came close to his car and shot him and his colleague," he said.
The assassination occurred as Tariq al-Hashimi and other Iraqi politicians are embroiled in negotiations over formation of a new government. Sunni and Kurdish politicians oppose the nominee for prime minister chosen by the Shiite coalition with the most seats in parliament, leaving the political process stalled. Both sides have accused each other of engaging in talks while still secretly sponsoring attacks on their rivals.
In Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, three nearly simultaneous explosions destroyed the Sharif Ridha shrine, a spokesman for the Diyala province Joint Coordination Center said. The attack did not kill or injure anyone but left the Shiite shrine's dome in ruins.
The attack was similar to the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February, which also took no lives but touched off a sustained wave of sectarian violence in Iraq. Though the site in Baqubah was less prominent than the one in Samarra, it honored Sharif Ridha, the eighth of the 12 imams revered by Shiite Muslims.
A car bomb exploded near a market in the small town of Sabea al-Boor, north of Baghdad, killing at least 15 people, according to Mustafa Kamil, a physician at the Kadhamiya Hospital in Baghdad. A witness, Ali Hussein, said bystanders prevented a second car bomb from detonating by stopping the driver and forcing him from his Kia sedan. U.S. troops later detained the man, Hussein said.
At least 18 other Iraqis were either killed by gunmen or found dead elsewhere in the country, according to police and news service reports. Among the dead were seven Sunni employees of a construction company in the Shiite-dominated southern city of Basra who were among 10 people kidnapped on Thursday morning. The other three workers were released, while an interpreter who had been working with British troops in Basra and had been kidnapped on Wednesday was found dead.
A roadside bomb also killed a U.S. soldier on patrol southwest of Baghdad, the military said in a statement. It also announced the death of a Marine in a bomb attack on Wednesday.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the chief spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, said that insurgents with ties to al-Qaeda and its leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were attempting to derail a political agreement between Iraq's ethnic and sectarian factions and that attacks would grow in intensity.
Zarqawi "still wants to stop the formation of the national unity government, and the closer they get, the more intense the enemy's operations become," Lynch said at a news conference.
Lynch also said U.S. forces had killed a senior al-Qaeda leader in a raid in Baqubah on March 27. He said Rafid Ibrahim Fattah had been dubbed an "al-Qaeda ambassador" by leaders in the organization and was responsible for kidnappings.
While Iraqis blame al-Qaeda for many of the most violent attacks in the country, many Sunnis also accuse Shiite politicians and militias connected to their political parties of carrying out kidnappings and killings. Sunni political leaders have accused Shiite groups of killing or abducting at least 83 Sunni Arabs in the past two days alone.
One of the Shiite leaders Sunnis say they fear most is Moqtada al-Sadr, a popular, radical cleric whose Mahdi Army militia is blamed for many attacks against Sunnis. In a letter issued Thursday, Sadr told his followers they should not provoke sectarian strife and asked Iraqis for forgiveness.
"Pardon me if anything happened from my side," Sadr's letter said. "Let us open up a new chapter of history."
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Correspondent Jonathan Finer and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.