- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

BAGHDAD — Gunmen killed 17 Iraqi police instructors and two translators as they traveled home from work at a British-run training school near the southern Iraqi city of Basra yesterday, a senior Iraqi officer said.

The brutal killings came as U.S. troops fought off an insurgent ambush in northern Iraq, killing 17 rebels. Six more policemen were reported slain elsewhere in Iraq. A bodyguard to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was wounded in an attack on a convoy, but Mr. al-Maliki was not present.

“There were 17 officers and two translators on their way back home after they finished work when gunmen stopped them in an area called al-Kibla,” said the Iraqi officer, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

“They work as instructors at the police academy in Shuaiba. They were killed and their bodies were taken back to Shuaiba and scattered around the town,” he said. “The two translators work with the instructors and the British army and police.”

Shuaiba is a town west of Basra that houses a large British base.

British military spokesman Maj. Charlie Burbridge confirmed that “there has been an incident in which it appears that 17 Iraqi police instructors were murdered in southern Basra this afternoon.”

“We are poised to support with whatever the [Iraqi Police Service] requests within our capabilities. We are taking the incident extremely seriously indeed,” he said.

The killings are a setback for British efforts to pacify southern Iraq, which hinges on training Iraqi security forces to enable them to take over responsibility for an area rife with illegal militia groups.

Although the area around Basra, which is largely Shi’ite, has been spared the worst of the sectarian violence that has torn apart life in central Iraq, the region is home to well-armed political, tribal and criminal factions.

The British government is under intense domestic political pressure over its strategy, with the former head of the country’s armed forces yesterday branding the attempt to fight on two fronts — in Iraq and Afghanistan — as “cuckoo.”

Britain has 7,200 troops in southern Iraq. Reports suggest their commanders would like to start pulling them out as early as February next year, although British Prime Minister Tony Blair insists they will stay “until the job is done.”

Mr. al-Maliki wants the process of taking control of his own security forces to go ahead more quickly, a desire that was welcomed by the United States after a tense week of talks.

“The prime minister is anxious to have more responsibility for the security of the country. He wants to have appropriate capabilities and command and control of forces,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

“We welcome his desire to have … more capable and credible forces and for him to have command and control of Iraqi forces,” he said in an interview with CNN.

Meanwhile, fighting erupted near the northern town of Balad when rebels armed with assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades twice ambushed a U.S. convoy en route to a raid targeting “three suspected terrorists.”

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