By Andy Mosher and Saad al-Izzi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 31, 2006; A11
BAGHDAD, July 30 -- Gunmen killed at least 23 Iraqis on Sunday on a highway south of Baghdad, commandeering three minibuses and herding their occupants into nearby palm groves, where they were lined up and shot, according to police and a witness.
The ambush occurred about 10 miles south of Baghdad where two major highways intersect near the town of al-Rasheed. The witness, Mohammed Mohan al-Janabi, said at least 15 masked gunmen positioned themselves Sunday morning on both sides of the expressway that links western and southern Iraq.
"We knew they wanted to kidnap or kill someone or even hit the American convoys that come to this part of the road, because it is really bumpy and drivers have to slow down" to about 12 mph, said Janabi, 43, a teacher.
The gunmen stopped three minibuses that were traveling together, Janabi said. The passengers and drivers were taken into one of the groves of palm trees lining the highway, where the attackers took their identification cards "and lined them up against the palm trees and shot them all," said Janabi, who lives about 500 yards from the expressway.
The three Kia minibuses were carrying pilgrims to the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 90 miles south of Baghdad, said police Capt. Nadhim Jassim, who is in charge of Interior Ministry checkpoints around nearby Mahmudiyah.
The bodies of 23 victims of the ambush have been counted so far, according to a hospital worker in Mahmudiyah, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that there may be more. Other victims may have been taken to hospitals in Baghdad, the source said.
Such attacks on Shiite pilgrims bound for Najaf are relatively common, according to an ambulance driver who identified himself only as Abu Sajad. He said his uncle had been killed in a similar incident a month ago.
The roads connecting Baghdad with Najaf and two other Shiite holy cities, Karbala and Kut, traverse a region known as the Triangle of Death, where kidnappings, killings and robberies have been rampant for about two years. The area is populated by a volatile mix of Shiites and Sunnis, and sectarian tensions are invariably high, but the violence there has been blamed as much on criminal gangs as on religious or political factions.
Also Sunday, the U.S. military reported that four U.S. Marines had been killed in combat the previous day in the western province of Anbar. The Marines were assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7, according to a prepared statement that gave no further details.
A U.S. F-16 fighter jet dropped two precision-guided bombs on a building near Baghdad used by insurgents affiliated with a group believed responsible for a mortar-and-rocket attack last week that killed at least 31 people in a Shiite district of the capital, the Associated Press reported. Two insurgents and a child were killed in the airstrike, and four suspects were arrested, U.S. officials said, expressing regret about the child's death.
In the northern oil center of Kirkuk, a car bomb near a gas station killed six people and wounded 17. It was the city's seventh bombing this month, and at least the fourth to target motorists waiting in long lines for gas.
Police in Kirkuk said the decapitated bodies of four policemen were found about 30 miles south of the city. The four had been kidnapped while traveling between Kirkuk and Tikrit, said police Col. Firas Mahmoud, and their remains showed signs that they had been tortured and fatally shot before they were beheaded.