BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Gunmen wearing commando uniforms of the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry stormed an Iraqi security company that relied heavily on Sunni ex-military men from the Saddam regime, spiriting away 50 hostages. The ministry denied involvement and called the operation a “terrorist act.”
Police and the U.S. military, meanwhile, reported finding the bodies of 24 men Wednesday who were garroted or shot in the head, most of them in an abandoned bus in a tough Baghdad Sunni neighborhood.
They also reported the deaths of at least 14 others across Iraq, including a U.S. soldier and a Marine.
The Sunni minority, which was dominant in the country under Saddam Hussein, has complained bitterly that it is under attack from death squads associated with the Interior Ministry, in charge of Iraq’s police. And, over the past two weeks, since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, violence has become increasingly sectarian. Nearly 600 people have been killed since Feb. 22.
Many of the dead in that period were Sunnis, killed at close range after apparently being captured by overwhelming numbers of attackers. The nature of the killings suggested that a well-armed and organized force carried out the attacks.
There have also been repeated attacks against the Shiite-led security forces. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr and one of his assistants may themselves have been targets of assassination attempts Wednesday.
A bomb hidden under a parked car detonated as police from Jabr’s protection force were driving through Baghdad, killing two officers and wounding a third, police said. Four bystanders were injured. And gunmen attacked the convoy of Interior Ministry Undersecretary Hekmet Moussa in west Baghdad, killing two bodyguards and injuring two others, police said.
Neither Jabr nor Moussa were in the convoys. The sectarian bloodshed has complicated Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s bid for a second term.
Al-Jaafari is opposed by a coalition of Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular Shiite politicians, led by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
The president has openly challenged al-Jaafari’s candidacy on grounds he is too divisive and would be unable to form a government representing all Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions. There was also great unease over al-Jaafari’s close ties to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
On Wednesday, Shiite Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi finally co-signed a presidential decree to call parliament into session for the first time since the Dec. 15 elections. The about-face appeared to break a political deadlock that had blocked attempts to begin the process of forming the country’s first permanent, post-invasion government.
“He signed the decree today. I expect the first session to be held on Sunday or by the end of next week at the latest,” said Nadim al-Jabiri, head of one of seven Shiite parties that make up the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament.
At the same time, however, Abdul-Mahdi’s change of heart signaled a potentially dangerous and growing internal dispute among the country’s majority Shiite political factions over the nomination of al-Jaafari, who has been criticized for not addressing Sunni complaints about the Interior Ministry.
The al-Rawafid Security Co. was attacked after gunmen arrived in a convoy of vehicles, including several white SUVs and a pickup truck mounted with a heavy gun, that they used to carry away the hostages, said Interior Ministry Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi. He said the victims, who included bodyguards, drivers, computer technicians and other employees, did not resist because they believed their abductors were police special forces working for the Interior Ministry.
“It was a terrorist act,” ministry Undersecretary Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Khefaji said.
Al-Rawafid, which employs a large number of Saddam’s former military officers, is one of dozens of companies providing security against the rampant violence in Iraq. Company headquarters are in Zayouna, a volatile and mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood in east Baghdad. One of its main clients is Iraqna, a cell phone company owned by Egyptian telecom giant Orascom.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said an American soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in the northwestern city of Tal Afar and a Marine died in enemy action in western Anbar province. Both men were killed Tuesday. Their deaths raised to at least 2,303 the number of U.S. military members who have died since the beginning of the war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The figure includes seven military civilians. The grisly discovery of corpses began when an American military patrol found 18 bodies, all men, in a bus on a road between two dangerous and mostly Sunni west Baghdad neighborhoods.
The bodies were brought to Yarmouk Hospital and lined up on stretchers for identification. Most had bruises indicating they were garroted and two were shot, said Dr. Muhanad Jawad. Police believed at least two of the men were foreign Arabs.
Police found the bodies of six more men, four of them strangled and two shot _ discarded in other parts of the city.
One often overlooked undercurrent of the daily bloodshed in today’s Iraq is its effect on children. At least two boys were killed Wednesday in a roadside bombing, police said. And gunmen stopped a school bus carrying about 25 high school girls, shooting the driver in front of his terrified passengers. He later died of his injuries, police said.
Wednesday’s political breakthrough, the signing of the decree calling parliament into session, did not mean the country’s political crisis was over. It could, however, bring the deepening feud to a head.
The Shiite Alliance is itself divided over al-Jaafari’s candidacy. He defeated Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite and one of two vice presidents, by a single vote in the Shiite caucus last month, largely because of al-Sadr’s backing.
Talabani, whose job it is to call parliament into session, sought to do that three days ago but was unable to persuade Abdul-Mahdi to sign as required by the constitution. Talabani was trying to force the hand of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the country’s senior Shiite politician and head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Abdul-Mahdi heads the Shiite parliamentary bloc loyal to al-Hakim.
A senior Shiite politician, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity nature of the information, said Abdul-Mahdi signed Talabani’s presidential decree after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sought al-Hakim’s intervention during a meeting Tuesday.
Political insiders now say al-Jaafari’s candidacy depends on how the bloc loyal to al-Hakim and Abdul-Mahdi decides to vote. Al-Hakim and Abdul-Mahdi are widely said by politicians to oppose his nomination but have held back from outright opposition because they fear incurring the wrath of al-Sadr.
Nadim al-Jabiri, head of one of six other Shiite political factions, said the decision to sign was made on advice Wednesday from Iraq’s Federal Court, which said parliament could be convened through an alternative process if Abdul-Mahdi continued to hold out.
By law, parliament has 15 days after it is convened to elect a new president. It then has 15 more days to approve the prime minister, and 30 days after that to vote on his Cabinet.