By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 3, 2007
BAGHDAD, March 2 -- In the photos, the 18 men were blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs. They appeared Friday on the Web site of a Sunni insurgent group that said it had kidnapped the men to avenge the alleged rape of a Sunni woman by members of Iraq's Shiite-dominated police force.
The Islamic State of Iraq said on its site that it had demanded Thursday that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hand over the accused policemen and free all female prisoners within 24 hours.
On Friday, officials found the bodies of 14 policemen in Diyala province east of Baghdad. All had been shot in the head.
"The government did not give any importance to their blood," the Islamic State of Iraq said. A government official said he doubted the dead were the men in the photos.
More than two weeks into a new Baghdad security plan, Sunni insurgents are asserting responsibility for an increasing number of violent attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces and civilian targets, while Shiite militias are lowering their profile.
In recent months, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni groups have begun to use more sophisticated tactics, downing U.S. helicopters and staging large attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Iraqi civilians.
Meanwhile, the Mahdi Army, the largest and most violent Shiite militia, headed by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has faded from neighborhoods it once visibly controlled. Sadr, whose forces have fiercely battled U.S. troops, appears to be cooperating with the security plan, although a statement attributed to him and released Sunday warned that the plan "will not be good if it is controlled and ruled by our enemies, the occupiers."
Mahdi Army militiamen "have certainly reduced their activities in the past couple of weeks," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a U.S. military spokesman. "What is their long-term intention? It is absolutely too early to tell."
The total number of attacks has fallen since mid-February, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. But the resurgence of Sunni militants may represent a change in the dynamics of violence in the capital.
After the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and the killing of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June, Shiite militias were blamed for many of the atrocities. U.S. officials viewed them as a bigger threat than Sunni insurgents. Dismantling the power of the Shiite militias became a primary goal of the current security plan.
Sunni insurgents say they have downed at least six U.S. helicopters since Jan. 20. Since the Feb. 14 launch of the security plan, the largest attacks, purportedly by al-Qaeda in Iraq or other Sunni insurgents, have targeted Shiite-controlled areas or U.S. troops.
They include two car bombings that killed at least 60 people in a crowded market in the mostly Shiite area of New Baghdad on Feb. 18. The next day, insurgents staged a brazen assault on an American military outpost, killing three U.S. soldiers and injuring 29 in the town of Tarmiyah, 19 miles north of Baghdad.
A suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt Feb. 25 at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, where most students are Shiite, killing dozens.
In Sunni-dominated Anbar province, insurgents allied with al-Qaeda in Iraq have clashed with security forces and Sunni tribal groups that oppose them. One such battle occurred Wednesday.
And in a new tactic, insurgents recently have blown up trucks containing chlorine, killing seven and injuring dozens.
On Friday, a car bomb detonated in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, killing 10 and injuring 17, the most serious attack in the area in several weeks.
U.S. officials say it is unclear whether Sunni insurgents are merely taking advantage of Sadr's decision to pull back his forces or whether they have embarked on a new strategy. Bleichwehl, the U.S. military spokesman, said an array of forces, including criminal elements, are fomenting the violence.
In Friday's Sadr City bombing, witnesses said the bomber drove the vehicle into a used-car market in the Habibiya neighborhood, parked and left. The car detonated just as potential customers gathered.
"We're tired from these ugly bombings," said Ali Abu Hisham, 34, who rushed to the scene when he heard the explosion. "We cannot stand anymore seeing bodies laying on the ground."
By then, in Diyala province, the bodies of the policemen had been found.
About 11 a.m. Thursday, the police officers had left their base in the provincial capital, Baqubah, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, and were returning to their homes near the town of Jdaidat al-Shat, near Baqubah, said 1st Lt. Fouad Ahmed of the Diyala police.
The insurgents, he said, forced the policemen to stop. "They got them out of their cars at gunpoint and took them to an unknown destination," Ahmed said.
Officials learned that the men had been kidnapped only after "the families started to report that their sons were missing," said Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem al-Kinani.
He added that he doubted that the 18 men shown on the Web site were among the slain policemen. "As for the pictures posted on the Net, we do not recognize the men in these photos. They could be fake pictures."
On Friday, the posting of the Islamic State of Iraq appeared. Nine photos showing the 18 men were displayed. Some of the men wore camouflage uniforms, while others were in civilian clothes.
The group warned that "God's verdict will be executed on them" if Iraq's "infidel government" does not comply with its demands.
The allegations of rape, rarely aired publicly in the Middle East, surfaced last week when a Sunni Arab woman went on television and accused three policemen of assaulting her. Maliki dismissed the allegations, causing a political uproar that widened the sectarian divide.
Also Friday, a roadside bomb killed two U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter northwest of Baghdad.
Special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi, Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.