BAGHDAD, Iraq _The blood-drenched bodies of at least 37 new Iraqi soldiers ambushed and killed execution-style were discovered Sunday northeast of Baghdad in one of the deadliest attacks yet on Iraq's nascent security forces.
Jordanian terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for the killings, according to a posting a Web site used by Islamic militants. Al-Qaida in Iraq, formerly known as Tawhid and Jihad, said, "God enabled the mujahedeen to kill all" the soldiers and "seize two vehicles and money."
The young recruits had just completed their training, received their salaries and were heading home on leave when insurgents disguised as Iraqi security personnel stopped their minibuses and shot them one-by-one at sunset Saturday, according to senior members of the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
The final body count varied from 37 to nearly 50. The men were unarmed and had no military escorts, Iraqi officials said. The attack followed twin suicide car bombings that targeted Iraqi police and national guardsmen on Saturday, and further threatened the interim Iraqi government's plan to increase security ahead of elections scheduled for January.
Al-Zarqawi's group is the most-feared terrorist organization in Iraq and earlier this week changed its name to reflect its public allegiance to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.
It claimed to have killed 48 "apostates," or faithless people, in Sunday's ambush. That's 11 higher than the Iraqi government count.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks on Iraqi and American forces as well as the grisly beheadings of several foreign hostages. The United States has put a $25 million bounty on al-Zarqawi—the same amount for bin Laden.
Also on Sunday, an early morning mortar attack at a U.S. military base near Baghdad International Airport killed Ed Seitz, an assistant regional security officer attached to the U.S. embassy. An American soldier was wounded in the incident.
"We honor Ed's devotion to country and freedom," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was traveling in China, said in a statement. "The enemies of peace shall not shake our will. America and a free Iraq will prevail. This is what Ed gave his life for, and this is what we will accomplish."
The Iraqi militant group Islamic Army in Iraq claimed responsibility for Seitz's killing, al-Jazeera television reported late Sunday. The group has been identified with past kidnappings and beheadings of westerners in Iraq.
Photos taken at the scene of the Iraqi army ambush, in a small town near the Iranian border about 95 miles east of Baghdad, showed carefully arranged rows of the dead, still dressed in tracksuits and jeans. Their arms were splayed in pools of blood. Some of their belongings—papers and packs of cigarettes—rested on their chests.
The soldiers from the 5th Division of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army were traveling south in three minibuses when an unknown number of assailants believed to have been dressed in Iraqi police and national guard uniforms flagged them down.
"(The insurgents) asked them to step out of the buses and they forced them to lie down on the ground," said a Defense Ministry official investigating the incident, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Then, they shot each one in the back of the head."
The deputy governor of the Diyala province, Aqil al-Adili, told Arabic-language satellite television stations he believed the attack was an inside job. He said the assailants apparently knew when the buses left the Kirkush training camp in northeastern Iraq and that the men inside were unarmed. Three drivers also were killed and insurgents left with two of the buses.
"In the future, we will try to be more careful when the soldiers leave their camps," al-Adili said. "We will provide them with protected cars that can escort them home."
The soldiers, in their early 20s, were mostly from the southern Shiite Muslim towns of Samawa, Basra and Nasiriyah, the ministry official said. Residents discovered the grisly scene early Sunday.
The news shocked Iraqis, who watched nonstop updates of the massacre on Arabic-language television Sunday. Many were especially angry that such a brazen, bloody attack occurred during Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar.
"This is Ramadan, blessed Ramadan, and the terrorists carried out this attack against unarmed people?" said one outraged Iraqi brigadier general, who would not give his name for fear of reprisal. "How could they do this? Are these the morals of nationalism and Islam?"
Shukriya Matroud, a 60-year-old mother with two sons in the new Iraqi national guard, said the news so upset her family that they couldn't eat at sundown, when the daylight fast of Ramadan ends.
"I cried, but what can we do? All those young men are our children. I'm not only worried about my sons, I'm worried about all of them," Matroud said. "The government is supposed to provide them with protection. Instead, they die like this. As easily as this."
In a separate incident, a coalition soldier died in a convoy ambush near the southern Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala, the U.S. military announced Sunday. Three other soldiers were wounded.
Military spokesmen identified the dead soldier only as a "non-American" who was attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team of Multinational Division Central South. That division is controlled by Polish forces, but includes troops from several other nations.
(Special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed from Baghdad; Renee Schoof contributed from Beijing.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.