BAGHDAD, (AP) – Iraqi commandos and U.S. forces have arrested a suspect in the 2006 kidnapping and murder of an Iraqi taekwondo team whose highway ambush became one of the symbols of Iraq’s lawlessness during its worse years of sectarian violence.
The U.S. military announced the arrest in a statement Sunday, but did not say when it took place or identify the suspect. The Iraqi military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Athletes and sports officials were frequent targets of threats, kidnappings and assassination attempts at the height of the civil strife in 2006 and 2007. Sportsmen were targeted for ransom or as victims of the sectarian violence.
The military statement said Iraqi forces working with American military advisers captured the suspect in Anbar province, a one-time Sunni insurgent stronghold west of the capital.
The taekwondo team was driving to a training camp in neighboring Jordan in May 2006, when their convoy was stopped on the highway in Anbar between Fallujah and Ramadi, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad. All 15 athletes were abducted.
More than a year later, the remains of 13 team members — mostly skulls and bones entangled in tattered sports uniforms — were found near the main highway leading to Jordan.
News of the arrest was met with some satisfaction by family members.
“We are still overwhelmed by sadness and bitterness. But the arrest of one of the killers will bring some relief to us,” said Ali Hussein Hamid, whose cousin Ahmed Ali was among the team members killed.
Hamid said Ali had been a member of the Iraqi national team for two years when he was abducted. Ali’s body was identified through the uniform he was wearing and an identification card he was carrying, he said.
Several top athletes and sports officials were kidnapped over that stretch, including the Sunni head of one of Iraq’s leading soccer clubs and an Iraqi international soccer referee. A top player on the Iraqi Olympic soccer team, a national volleyball player, an Iraqi tennis coach and two of his players were also among those abducted.
Most recently, gunmen killed the coach of Iraq’s national karate team, Izzat Abdullah, a 45-year-old Sunni, near his house in Mosul in June.
While insurgent violence has fallen off dramatically since 2007, crimes committed for money — from bank robbery to kidnapping for ransom — have been on the rise.
On Sunday, kidnappers freed a Christian doctor abducted the night before from her home just east of Mosul, according to a family member.
Suaad Shamoun said his cousin, Mehasin Beshir, was released after the family paid a ransom. Shamoun did not disclose the amount paid.
Iraqi police searched for Beshir after she was taken at gunpoint late Saturday from her home in a small Christian village just east of Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, an Iraqi police official said.
The gunmen appeared to have gained access to the doctor’s house, where she routinely treated people. A woman, apparently working with the kidnappers, told the doctor she was ill and dropped by for treatment. Gunmen then stormed in behind the woman and abducted the doctor, a second security official said.
There are few official statistics on the number and kinds of kidnappings, in part because the government remains focused on the bombings and other insurgent attacks that continue to plague Baghdad and northern Iraq.
On Sunday, a suicide car bomber killed two policeman and wounded a civilian at a police checkpoint in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, a policeman said.
In nearby Fallujah, a roadside bomb struck a police patrol, killing one officer, a police official said. Five people, including three policemen, were wounded in the attack, the official said.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Meanwhile, a police commander said recaptured al-Qaeda-linked prisoners do not need to be moved to the Iraqi capital as part of an investigation into their recent break out of a prison in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wanted the recaptured prisoners transferred to Baghdad. But provincial police commander, Maj. Gen. Hamad al-Namis, told reporters Sunday the prisoners do not need to be moved to another city because they can be sent to a new prison near Tikrit.
Five of the 16 were al-Qaeda-linked prisoners awaiting execution. At least eight of the 16, including three al-Qaeda-linked prisoners, have been hunted down following the jailbreak on Wednesday.
More than 100 officials and guards at the prison have been detained for questioning in the case.