- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

BAGHDAD — The bodies of 14 police officers were found yesterday northeast of Baghdad after an al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni group said it abducted members of a government security force in retaliation for the rape of a Sunni woman by members of the Shi’ite-dominated police.

Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the bodies were discovered yesterday afternoon in Diyala province. The policemen were kidnapped Thursday on their way to their homes in Diyala for leave, he said.

Earlier yesterday, a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq said in a Web statement that it seized 18 Interior Ministry employees in Diyala in retaliation for “the crimes carried out … against the Sunnis,” including the purported rape last month of a Sunni woman by policemen in Baghdad.

In a second statement, the group announced that its “court” had ordered the “execution” of the men and that a video depicting their deaths would be posted later, according to the SITE Institute, which monitors extremist Web sites.

Photos accompanied the claim, showing up to 18 blindfolded men, seven of them wearing Iraqi military uniforms. All had their hands tied behind their backs.

But Gen. Khalaf cast doubt on whether the 14 slain policemen were the same men shown in the Web site photos.

“We found the 14 policemen’s bodies, but they are not those who are in the fabricated images on the Web site,” he said. “The Diyala police told us that they don’t know who those people shown on the Web site were.”

Nevertheless, he blamed al Qaeda for the killings and said Iraqi authorities would “chase those who assassinated these unarmed people.”

The Islamic State of Iraq had threatened to kill the hostages within 24 hours if the Iraqi government did not hand over officers accused in the rape case, and release all Sunni women held in Iraqi prisons.

“This blessed operation is a response to crimes carried out by those infidels in their fight against the Sunnis,” the statement said. “The latest of the crimes committed by these traitors was to rape our sister in religion.”

A 20-year-old woman told Arab television stations that she was detained in a Sunni area of west Baghdad on Feb. 18, taken to a police garrison and assaulted by three officers. The woman gave a name that identified her as Sunni.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, announced an investigation Feb. 19 but cleared the officers the following day, stirring outrage among Sunni politicians.

Mr. al-Maliki said the rape claim was fabricated to tarnish the reputation of the police and the ongoing security crackdown in Baghdad.

In Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi troops are engaged in a major security crackdown, police said a car bomb killed 10 persons and wounded 17 when it ripped through a used car market in Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, an anti-U.S. Shi’ite militia.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said yesterday that sectarian violence was close to tearing Iraq apart and the situation was destabilizing the whole region.

“We agree on a sad observation. We are close to partition. There is today a situation of regional destabilization,” Mr. Douste-Blazy said yesterday at a joint press conference in Qatar with Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani.

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