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Deaths Point to Roadblocks' Risk

Thirty-one Iraqi police recruits were slain by rebels after U.S. forces diverted their bus. Detours onto less safe roads spur complaints.

January 24, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — He feigned death, hiding among the crepuscular shadows and the corpses of his slain comrades.

The man from Samarra, who told his story to Iraqi police, was one of the few to survive the massacre of at least 31 would-be police recruits last week.

He was among three dozen Samarra natives who were deemed unfit to enter the Baghdad police academy for training in Iraq's new national force. It was a hard blow for Iraqis seeking steady, well-paying jobs in a country whose economy has been shattered by violence.

The Samarra men, among 229 prospects vying for positions, were rejected for a variety of reasons. Some were too old or overweight. Others were illiterate or had checkered pasts.

So the men hired a bus to take them home. But they were diverted by a roadblock set up by U.S. troops investigating the possible downing of an attack helicopter that day between Samarra and Baghdad. The military is still investigating the Jan. 16 chopper crash, which killed two U.S. soldiers.

Their driver turned onto a dirt road that took them to an industrial area of Taji, about 12 miles north of Baghdad, and into an insurgent ambush.

Six carloads of gunmen stopped the bus, rifled through the rejected recruits' possessions and found applications for police jobs. The survivor told authorities that the gunmen drove the recruits to an abandoned area and, as night fell, shot them.

Since then, police have found 31 corpses.

The incident occurred two weeks after a suicide bomb killed more than 70 police recruits in Ramadi and was yet another reminder of the risks facing Iraqis who attempt to join the country's nascent police force.

Bush administration officials have stated that the withdrawal of U.S. troops is contingent upon Iraqi security forces strong enough to stabilize the country. Samarra, a strategic city of about 200,000 people that has been repeatedly attacked by insurgents, is a prime example of the need for such a home-grown force.

"Samarra is a hot spot for the insurgency where we've been trying to build up the civil society," said Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a military spokesman. "Because it is the nexus of a lot of important Iraqi infrastructure -- oil pipelines, power lines, roads -- it's a city that's very important to us and to the enemy."

Wellman said recruiting in Samarra was part of an effort to build a local police force to combat the insurgency more effectively there. A Baghdad commando unit is stationed in the city now, he said.

Wellman downplayed fears that last week's slayings would hinder police recruitment, saying that patriotism and the prospect of steady wages outweighed the risks for many Iraqis.

Some American and Iraqi officials expressed concern, however, that the deaths could drive away applicants.

"People in Samarra will refuse to join because of these incidents," said Iraqi Police Col. Saad Dahham. "There will be no new recruits if they feel that their destiny will be to be murdered."

The roads leading out of Baghdad are so dangerous that some Westerners have taken to calling the zone surrounding the capital the "ring of fire." The slayings were reminiscent of killings in April 2005, when insurgents set up checkpoints near Suwayrah, 30 miles southeast of Baghdad. The insurgents kidnapped motorists, killed at least 60 people and dumped their bodies in the Tigris River.

After last week's slayings, Wellman said there was no evidence that the downing of a U.S. helicopter and the subsequent ambush were linked. He also said the insurgents probably were unaware of who was on the bus until they searched it.

U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to determine whether the rejected recruits were offered a police escort. Wellman pledged that such an escort would be provided in the future.

Many Iraqis have reacted by heaping equal measures of blame on the insurgents and the U.S. military, which they say frequently blocks thoroughfares and forces motorists onto dangerous side roads.

Saeed Alnuaimi, 47, a Baghdad resident, said he was often frustrated by American roadblocks as he traveled the 50 miles north to his farm. He said the U.S. barriers ruined a truckload of produce last week.

"I was forced to sleep in the street for two days and then had to take dirt roads to reach Baghdad to sell my crops -- most of which were destroyed," Alnuaimi said. "Who will bear my loss? All the Iraqis have reached the conclusion that the U.S. occupation doesn't think of anything except its own interest."

On Monday, a suicide bomber killed three Iraqis, including a policeman and a 19-year-old sports journalist, near the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad.

Iraqi police commandos killed four Iraqis and arrested more than 20 during a predawn sweep of a predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood and a mosque in north Baghdad.

The U.S. military announced that roadside bombs killed seven U.S. servicemen in three attacks since Friday. One soldier was killed Monday in southwest Baghdad, two airmen died Sunday near Taji and four soldiers were killed Friday near the northern town of Hawijah.

*

Times staff writer Raheem Salman and special correspondents in Tikrit and Baghdad contributed to this report.

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