About 50 Iraqi Soldiers Are Found Shot to Death by Rebels

By EDWARD WONG

New York Times

October 24, 2004

Police officers discovered this morning the bodies of about 50 Iraqi soldiers who were killed in an ambush by insurgents the previous night in a remote part of eastern Iraq, Iraqi officials said.

The bodies were found near the Iranian border, about 30 miles east of the restive city of Baquba, which has been wracked by guerrilla warfare since the American invasion. The soldiers were going home on leave. It is unclear who killed them, or how such a brazen and deadly ambush could have been mounted by guerrillas on American-trained Iraqis.

In violence in the capital, a State Department security officer, Ed Seitz, was killed in a mortar or rocket attack at Camp Victory, an American military base near Baghdad International Airport, said Bob Callahan, an embassy spokesman. Mr. Seitz was posted at the base. His death is the first known one of a State Department official in Iraq.

"I mourn the loss of one of our own today in Baghdad," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in the statement issued while he was flying to China from Japan. "Ed was a brave American, dedicated to his country."

Today, American warplanes pounded targets in Falluja, a guerrilla stronghold west of Baghdad, and killed five people, according to witnesses quoted by the Reuters news agency. Hospital officials said the dead were civilians.

The American military said a "precision" strike had destroyed a known enemy command-and-control post in northern Falluja.

In the northern city of Mosul, a car bomb exploded near an American military convoy, but did not injure anyone.

Police officials in Baquba said the ambushed soldiers were apparently taken from minibuses carrying them from a training camp in the town of Kirkush and killed execution style, with bullets to the back of their heads, news agencies reported. The bodies were found in four rows, with about a dozen bodies in each row, the police said. The soldiers had been on leave in towns in the south.

The killings of the soldiers marks the first time that insurgents have staged such an ambitious and bloody ambush. Only in the most powerful suicide car bomb attacks have insurgents been able to kill so many members of the nascent Iraqi security forces. Even then, most of those killed are recruits and not actually police officers or soldiers.

A spokeswoman for the Iraqi government, Maha Malik, had a somewhat different account of the attack. She said insurgents had fired rocket-propelled grenades at two minibuses carrying the soldiers, The Associated Press reported. An A.P. reporter at the scene said the charred hulks of the buses were still in the area, as were human remains and pools of blood.

It was unclear whether the soldiers were part of the Iraqi National Guard, a domestic militia, or the new Iraqi Army. Kirkush is the largest training camp run by the Americans, and is located in a dry swath of desert near the mountainous Iranian border.

The murders of the roughly 50 soldiers raises questions of why the soldiers were unable to defend themselves, especially given the fact they were undergoing training by Americans, and whether they had sufficient protection as they were traveling back and forth from leave.

The ambush came the same day that powerful car bombs killed 18 Iraqi police officers and national guardsmen in explosions across the country. The deadliest attack came outside a Marine base in western Anbar province, a hotbed of the insurgency. Ten police officers were killed there when a bomb went off by a group of hundreds of men looking to join the security forces.

Members of the Iraqi police or armed forces have the most dangerous jobs in Iraq. But because the unemployment rate still hovers at 60 percent one-and-a-half years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, young men flock in droves to the jobs. The average police officer's pay amounts to more than $220 per month, a solid middle-class income in a strife-ridden land.

A sharp spike in violence has taken place in the 10 days since the start of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. Martyrs are said to accrue special benefits during the month. The American military has said attacks are up 25 percent daily, approaching the levels seen last April, when a two-front uprising roiled the country.