Dozens of Iraqi police officers were missing and feared dead Friday after an apparent ambush, as incessant violence between the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni Arab minority marred the Muslim holy day.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported early today that two Marines were killed and 22 wounded Thursday “due to enemy action” in western Iraq.
Details of the attack Thursday night on the Iraqi policemen came from confusing and contradictory official accounts, which have come to characterize much of the sectarian violence in Iraq.
It occurred near a U.S. base in Taji as about 80 officers of the Shiite-dominated police force headed back to their academy in the southern city of Najaf after picking up new vehicles from a training center. Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad, is considered a stronghold of the Sunni-led insurgency.
Iraqis rarely travel the country’s perilous roads at night, fearing bandits and insurgents, and Maj. Gen. Abbas Karim, a police chief in Najaf, told reporters that the convoy departed after U.S. officials refused to let the Iraqis spend the night at the base.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, an American spokesman, said the military had “no indication that there ever was any request to stay at a U.S. base.”
Fighting erupted between Iraqi police officers and suspected Sunni insurgents shortly after the convoy of about 10 vehicles left the base.
A source in the Taji police force said police officers in the convoy, including members of the feared Interior Ministry Special Forces, started shooting randomly when they reached a riverbank, wounding at least 10 area residents.
The residents feared that the convoy was one of the Shiite death squads with ties to the security apparatus that have been targeting Sunni areas, said the source, who asked not to be named.
Gunmen fired mortar rounds, automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the convoy, setting fire to at least six of the vehicles, witnesses said.
“Our convoy came under attack and we suddenly hear cries saying, ‘Come to jihad!’ and ‘God is great,’ ” said Mohammed Azgheir, one of the wounded policemen.
“Our convoy returned fire. The fight was very intense.”
The Taji police source said at least 20 officers were killed, whereas police chief Karim said the toll was at least 30. The U.S. military said it could confirm only seven dead and five wounded.
A group of police officers who managed to escape seized the cars of passersby and ordered them to drive to checkpoints, witnesses said.
“Many of the policemen in the convoy tried to escape to nearby farms,” said Azgheir, in a hospital in Najaf.
Only about two dozen of the 80 officers have been found alive, Karim said.
Johnson said American troops came to the aid of the police officers after the incident, detaining five gunmen, one of whom was wounded. “The only involvement here is that once they came under attack, we did have troops provide assistance,” he said.
Shiite clerics, some of whom angrily denounced the attack, warned Friday that such incidents could escalate the violence.
Iraqi and U.S. officials are concerned that a political stalemate over the formation of a full-term government, four months after elections, is worsening the country’s already dire security situation.
“I ask the politicians to hasten their efforts in the formation of a national unity government in order to establish security because we cannot predict what will happen,” Hazem Araji, a loyalist of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, said during Friday prayers at the Imam Kadhim Mosque in northern Baghdad.
“Last week was bad,” he said. “Maybe next week will be even worse.”
Religious leaders also criticized their political counterparts.
“While the government and political parties are deeply involved in their rivalries and arguments, innocent Iraqis keep suffering daily bloodshed and terror,” Sheik Mahmoud Issawi, a Sunni cleric leading Friday prayers at Baghdad’s Abdul Qadir Gilani mosque, told worshipers.
“Iraqis are the only victims of the current situation.”
The U.S. military released few details of the clash involving Marines on Thursday in western Iraq. The statement indicated that eight of the 22 wounded Marines were airlifted to the massive base in Balad.
The military did not disclose details about the nature or exact location of the hostile encounter in Al Anbar province, but witnesses reported clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents near the soccer stadium in the provincial capital, Ramadi.
A U.S. military spokesman also reported three clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces in Fallouja on Friday but did not have details about casualties.
In the southern city of Basra, 11 employees of a company making concrete barriers used at military checkpoints were shot to death in a square Friday morning. The men had been seized by gunmen as they left work Thursday.
Two bombs exploded outside Sunni mosques in Baqubah, a religiously mixed provincial capital about 35 miles northeast of the capital. At least four worshipers were killed and eight injured as they left after prayers.
The attacks against Sunni houses of worship raised the possibility that Shiites are retaliating after an onslaught of bombings against Shiite shrines, including a triple suicide bombing April 7 at a mosque in Baghdad that killed scores of worshipers.
Almost daily attacks on Shiite religious establishments have persisted. A car bomb went off Friday near a Shiite mosque in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, apparently accidentally. Only the driver was killed, police said.
Sunnis accuse Shiite militias of acting under the guise of official security forces to abduct and kill Sunni Arabs.
On Thursday, Sunni political and clerical groups alleged that nearly 90 Sunnis were missing or had been killed by death squads with ties to the Interior Ministry. Officials on Friday reported one body found handcuffed and blindfolded, bearing signs of torture, in southern Baghdad.
Times staff writers Louise Roug in Baghdad and Solomon Moore in Fallouja and special correspondents in the cities of Baghdad, Baqubah, Basra, Balad, Najaf and Taji contributed to this report.