- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Bomb attacks in Baghdad have hit an all-time high, the U.S. military said yesterday, while the death toll throughout Iraq for American soldiers rose to 22 in the past four days.

Iraqi authorities for the first time pulled a brigade of about 700 policemen out of service yesterday for investigation of suspected ties to death squads.

The police face criminal vetting and lie detector tests as part of a “retraining” process designed to weed out militia members who have used the cover of their uniforms to kidnap, torture and commit mass murder, U.S. officials said.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the U.S. military spokesman, said the number of car bombs in Baghdad hit the highest level of the year last week and that bombs reported in general were “also at an all-time high.”

The explosion of violence in Baghdad comes amid a major military operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces in the capital to stop bombings and tit-for-tat sectarian killings.

For the second time in two days, four U.S. soldiers were killed in a single incident around Baghdad, this time in what appears to have been a substantial skirmish involving mortars or rockets and gunfire to the northwest.

It took the American death toll in the past four days to 15 in and near Baghdad and 22 in total.

Gen. Caldwell described it as a “hard week” for U.S. forces, who typically suffer two to three deaths a day on average in Iraq.

Fourteen persons were killed and 75 wounded when a car bomb struck a government motorcade in Baghdad. Police said the industry minister, a Kurd, was in the motorcade but aides said no senior officials were in the convoy.

The blast in the Christian Karrada commercial area damaged buildings and left blood and mangled cars in the street.

The suspension of the police brigade was the first time the Iraqi government has taken such dramatic action to discipline security forces over possible links to militiamen.

Baghdad’s Sunnis widely fear the Shi’ite-led police, saying they are infiltrated by militias and accusing them of cooperating with death squads who snatch Sunnis and kill them.

The brigade was responsible for a region of northeast Baghdad, where gunmen on Sunday kidnapped 24 workers from a frozen-food factory. Hours later, the bodies of seven of the workers were found dumped in a district miles away. Sunni politicians have said all those who were kidnapped were Sunnis; the region has a mixed population with a slight Shi’ite majority.

The Interior Ministry spokesman said the brigade was being investigated because it “didn’t respond quickly” to the kidnapping. Sunnis blamed Shi’ite militias for the abduction and accused police of allowing the gunmen to escape and move freely with their captives.

Gen. Caldwell said the police brigade in the area had been ordered to stand down and was undergoing retraining. He said some were being investigated and that any found to have militia ties would be removed.

“The government of Iraq was very clear as we go through this process that if that [unit] comes out at 30 percent of what it went in with, that’s OK,” he told reporters.

“There is clear evidence that there was some complicity in allowing death squad elements to move freely when, in fact, they were supposed to have been impeding their movement,” Gen. Caldwell said.

The suspended brigade had about 650 to 700 members, and the Interior Ministry said Tuesday that its commander of the unit, a lieutenant colonel, has been detained for investigation. The major general who oversees the brigade and two others in the area has been suspended temporarily and ordered transferred.

The U.S. military appeared to have a key role in getting the brigade sidelined. Gen. Caldwell said problems with the unit had emerged during a broad brigade-by-brigade assessment of police in Baghdad carried out by the U.S. military over the summer — and the decision to act was made by the Interior Ministry on Tuesday.

The sectarian spiral of revenge killings between Shi’ites and Sunnis has become the deadliest violence in Iraq, with thousands slain in recent months. “Over the past three months, murders and executions [by death squads] have caused the majority of civilian deaths in Iraq,” Gen. Caldwell said.

Car bombs, as well as other explosions and shootings, killed 34 persons across the country yesterday.

Gen. Caldwell said the number of car bombs and roadside bombs that went off or had been found and defused over the past week was the highest this year. He declined to give firm numbers, but said, “The trend line has been up over the last couple of months.”

But he also said the military has killed or captured an increasing number of suspected members of al Qaeda in Iraq, the most feared Sunni insurgent group. In September, 110 al Qaeda suspects were killed and 520 detained — including a driver of the group’s leader, Abu Ayyub Masri, captured on Sept. 28.

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