Oct 4, 7:15 PM (ET)
By DAVID RISING BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraqi authorities pulled a brigade of about 700 policemen out of service Wednesday in its biggest move ever to uproot troops linked to death squads, aiming to signal the government’s seriousness in cleansing Baghdad of sectarian violence. The government move came amid steadily mounting violence, particularly in the capital. A U.S. military spokesman said the past week had seen the highest number of car bombs and roadside bombs in Baghdad this year. Four U.S. soldiers patrolling in Baghdad were killed by gunmen on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, also announcing the deaths of two other soldiers a day earlier in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk. The deaths brought to 21 the number of Americans killed in combat since Saturday. The suspension of the police brigade was the first time the Iraqi government has taken such dramatic action to discipline security forces over possible links to militiamen, though some individual soldiers have been investigated in the past. Baghdad’s Sunnis widely fear the Shiite-led police, saying they are infiltrated by militias and accusing them of cooperating with death squads who snatch Sunnis and kill them. The brigade was responsible for a region of northeast Baghdad with a slight Shiite majority, where gunmen on Sunday kidnapped 24 workers from a frozen food factory. Hours later, the bodies of seven of the workers were found dumped in a district miles away. Sunni politicians have said all those who were kidnapped were Sunnis. They blamed Shiite militias for the abduction and accused police of allowing the gunmen to escape and move freely with their captives. Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the chief ministry spokesman, said the brigade was being investigated because it “didn’t respond quickly” to the kidnapping. The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said the police brigade in the area had been ordered to stand down and was undergoing retraining. He said some were being investigated and that any found to have militia ties would be removed. “The government of Iraq was very clear as we go through this process that if that (unit) comes out at 30 percent of what it went in with, that’s OK with the government of Iraq,” he told a Baghdad news conference. “There is clear evidence that there was some complicity in allowing death squad elements to move freely when, in fact, they were supposed to have been impeding their movement,” Caldwell said. The U.S. military appeared to have a key role in getting the brigade sidelined. Caldwell said problems with the unit had emerged during a broad brigade-by-brigade assessment of police in Baghdad carried out by the U.S. military over the summer – and the decision was made by the Interior Ministry to act Tuesday. U.S. forces have been carrying out raids and arrests of militia members for the past month as part of a wide-scale U.S.-Iraqi sweep of Baghdad launched in August, which has seen the number of American troops in the capital double. Forces have been moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, searching houses, confiscating weapons and arranging services like water and electricity for residents in an attempt to stop sectarian violence and insurgent attacks. The rise in U.S. deaths in recent days may be linked to their increased presence in the capital, commanders have said. But at the same time, Sunnis have accused the Shiite-led government of balking at sending its security forces against the Shiite militias, many of which are linked to parties in the coalition. The suspended brigade had about 650-700 members, and the Iraqi Interior Ministry said Tuesday that its commander of the unit, a lieutenant colonel, has been detained for investigation. The major general who oversees the brigade and two others in the area has been suspended temporarily and ordered transferred. Khalaf said a random selection of troops in the suspended unit were being investigated for ties to militias. The sectarian spiral of revenge killings between Shiites and Sunnis has become the deadliest violence in Iraq, with thousands slain in recent months. “Over the past three months, murders and executions (by death squads) have caused the majority of civilian deaths in Iraq,” Caldwell said. The violence has also threatened to undermine the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as Shiite and Sunni parties in his coalition accuse each other of backing militias. On Monday, al-Maliki announced a new security plan to unite the feuding parties, creating local committees in which Sunnis and Shiites will work together to manage efforts to stop the violence on a district-by-district level. But contentious details of the plan still must be worked out – and Shiite and Sunni parties for a second day on Wednesday put off negotiations. At the same time, Sunni-led insurgents have continued their attacks targeting civilians, Iraqi officials and U.S. and Iraqi troops. Car bombs, as well as other explosions and shootings, killed 34 people across the country Wednesday. In the deadliest attack, a string of two bombs and an explosive-packed vehicle blew up in a district of stores and auto shops in a mainly Christian neighborhood of Baghdad, killing 12 people and wounding 56, police said. Hours later, after sunset and the end of the day’s Ramadan fast, gunmen opened fire on a popular cafe in an overwhelmingly Shiite district of southeast Baghdad, killing four patrons and wounding seven others. Caldwell said the number of car bombs and roadside bombs that went off or had been found and defused over the past week was the highest this year. He declined to give firm numbers, but said, “The trend line has been up over the last couple of months.” But he also said the military has killed or captured an increasing number of suspected members of al-Qaida in Iraq, the most feared Sunni insurgent group. In September, 110 al-Qaida suspects were killed and 520 detained – including a driver of the group’s leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, captured on Sept. 28.