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Differing Accounts Emerge of Raid on Suspected Hide-Out

Times Staff Writer

An American raid on a suspected militant hide-out in a rural region north of Baghdad resulted Wednesday in the deaths of two women and a child as well as one insurgent, U.S. military officials said.

Neighbors in the Balad area near Samarra disputed the American account, saying 11 members of a schoolteacher’s family were killed.

The military statement said troops conducting an operation to capture an Al Qaeda organizer “were engaged by enemy fire” as they approached the suspected hide-out.

“Coalition forces returned fire, utilizing both air and ground assets,” the statement said. The house and a vehicle were destroyed and an unidentified “foreign fighter facilitator” was captured, the military said.

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But neighbors and Iraqi police officials said the assault targeted innocent victims.

“At 5 a.m., we went to the house and saw the family members were hand-tied and shot in the head,” alleged Mohammed Salih Mohammed, 35. “Even their cows died.”

Among those killed were four children, including a 7-month-old, the neighbors said.

Lt. Majid Shakir Ali of the Samarra police said: “According to our information those people have nothing to do with fighters or terrorists.... There is a peaceful protest in the area condemning the horrible incident.”

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U.S. military spokesman Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson acknowledged that there was a “discrepancy” between the military account and that of the witnesses. “I don’t have an answer yet” to explain it, he said, adding that the military was investigating the incident.

Sectarian violence, meanwhile, continued. Iraqi police found 25 bodies in various parts of Baghdad overnight, the Interior Ministry said today.

The victims, all men who had been shot, were discovered between 7 p.m. Wednesday and 7 a.m. today in both Shiite and Sunni Muslim neighborhoods.

The capital, where Sunnis and Shiites live side by side, has suffered a surge of sectarian killing since bombers destroyed an important Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22 and ripped apart markets in a Baghdad Shiite slum on Sunday.

On Wednesday, one gunman was killed and two were injured while placing a bomb along a road near the northern city of Kirkuk.

A bomb in Basra, in the south, targeted a British military convoy, injuring two civilians and a British soldier.

In Baqubah, northeast of the capital, a roadside bomb killed Lt. Alaa Jalil, commander of an Iraqi police SWAT team.

In western Baghdad, a car bomb detonated on a busy commercial street, killing one person and injuring 15 others, including two police officers.

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It was the second car bomb to explode on the street in 24 hours. The toll probably would have been much higher if not for an 8 p.m. curfew imposed in anticipation of the opening of the new parliament today.

The carnage this week in Baghdad has overwhelmed the capital’s central morgue.

The facility has 13 freezers with a capacity to store 20 corpses at a time, said Dr. Abed Jubaidy, deputy director of the Institute of Central Forensics in Baghdad. Yet in the 24 hours before Wednesday morning, police brought in 100 unidentified bodies.

Each morning, families gather outside, hoping, yet not hoping, to find their missing loved ones. On Wednesday, an estimated 300 people waited as a light spring breeze flitted through the trees.

“This is the scene here every day,” said Ayman Kareem, 30, a bodyguard in the Health Ministry. “It seems a never-ending process.”

Every few minutes, a blue-and-white police pickup arrived bearing more bodies. With each arrival, the crowd pressed forward for a glimpse. Coffins were stacked next to the morgue, awaiting the dead.

The deceased included both Sunni Arabs and Shiites.

“My brother was kidnapped on the second of this month by a group of men with machine guns,” said Mohammed Hummood Shumari, a Shiite from the Diyala Bridge district outside Baghdad. “I came here to see the pictures of the corpses. I could not identify my brother. Most of the corpses I saw were horrifying. All were tortured.”

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Under international forensic and Iraqi laws, the government is obligated to keep unidentified bodies for two months before burying them, Jubaidy said. “However, because of the load of the corpses we have received lately, it’s impossible to keep them that long.”

Volunteers bury the unclaimed as little as a week after they are brought in.

As the sectarian violence has grown, some clerics and political leaders continue to try to cool the tempers of their followers.

On Wednesday, a leading Sunni, Sheik Ahmad Samarrai, gave a televised speech condemning “any person who kills and tortures an Iraqi” as an infidel and an apostate. “We must seek to stop the bloodshed. If there are threatening fliers by ill-willed hands, we must protect those people’s houses.”

Interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite, announced that the government was setting aside funds to compensate families who had been driven from their homes by sectarian attacks.

Jafari also warned that the government was ready to use a so-called Terrorist Law to crack down on those committing violence. The law allows the government to confiscate the property, even the homes, of terrorists and those who help them, government officials said.

Abdelaziz Hakim, head of the influential Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite party, blamed recent attacks on “Saddamists” -- not Sunnis -- and called on neighboring nations to join in a regional effort to stem the tide of terrorists moving between countries. More dramatically, Hakim suggested that Iran open a dialogue with the United States on the future of Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S. military commanders said they had moved 700 additional American troops into Iraq from Kuwait this week as part of a series of adjustments for Iraq’s parliament session today and for expected pilgrimages by hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims as a religious holiday period draws to a close.

U.S. commanders have sent a unit from the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 1st Armored Division, which has been positioned in Kuwait as part of a “call forward force” of American troops available for special circumstances. The 700 troops, with tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, are being sent to the Baghdad area. The division’s home base is in Germany.

Iraq’s national Council of Representatives is meeting today for the first time since parliamentary elections Dec. 15. And Monday marks the culmination of a 40-day mourning period commemorating the martyrdom of a grandson of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. The Shiite holiday, which begins with Ashura, has been marred by bloodshed in past years.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hinted a day earlier that U.S. troops might “bulk up” for the Shiite observance, as they have for elections. Military officials still had not decided whether to recommend a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq during 2006, a move President Bush has said would reflect progress. About 130,000 American troops are in Iraq.

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Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed, Zainab Hussein and Shamil Aziz, special correspondents in Baghdad and Samarra and staff writer Mark Mazzetti in Washington contributed to this report. Times wire services were used in compiling it.


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