BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi security forces have captured and are interrogating six suspects—including four of their own policemen plus a former cop from Saddam Hussein's regime—as chief suspects in this week's execution-style killings of two American civilians who were doing human rights work near Babylon, U.S. coalition officials said Friday.
The Americans were the first U.S. civilians working for the occupation authority to be killed in Iraq and, if their killers turn out to be police, they would be the first to have been killed by members of Iraq's newly minted, 150,000-strong security forces.
FBI agents have been called in to assist on forensics and re-create the crime scene, said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. But coalition spokesman Dan Senor warned that it was premature to say whether the U.S.-nurtured security forces had been infiltrated by an anti-American cell.
"We have a very robust vetting process for all Iraqis that are hired or rehired in the security services," said Senor. "But it is not perfect. ... Individuals slip through the cracks. We act to identify it and remove them immediately."
Both men said that corrupt cops are in every society, then boasted that 500 more Iraqi police had just graduated from an eight-week, U.S.-sponsored police academy program in Jordan. That brought the number of Iraqi police who have taken the comprehensive course to 2,827. In addition, 12,422 others received a special three-week course.
It wasn't known whether the suspects completed the special U.S.-funded program, said Kimmitt, adding that four of the six suspects were carrying coalition-approved police badges. A fifth, he said, was an officer in Saddam's now-defunct Iraqi police force.
Investigators are checking the four policemen for criminal records or ties to the Saddam regime, to see if they should have been disqualified from Iraq's new security forces, which ostensibly were cleansed of Baath Party loyalty under administrator L. Paul Bremer.
Killed were Fern Holland, 33, from Oklahoma, Robert Zangas, 44, a former Marine from suburban Pittsburgh, and their U.S.-paid Iraqi interpreter, Selwa Ourmashe. Holland helped write the women's rights section of the new interim Iraqi constitution, and Zangas was working on an Iraqi free press project.
Kimmitt said there had been no confessions—the six men were caught in the Americans' car—but Senor said the killers' motive was to spread terror and undermine U.S. gains in nurturing Iraqi democracy.
The trio was killed Tuesday night as they drove through a Polish-patrolled area near Hillah, 35 miles south of Baghdad.
Senor declined to say Friday whether Holland, Zangas and Ourmashe had been following strict security guidelines on how U.S. government contractors can travel in Iraq, and he refused to discuss the rules for security reasons.
Senor and Kimmitt also wouldn't confirm reports that the trio stopped at a police checkpoint. However, they denied that the victims' bodies were recovered in their car trunk.
The emerging post-Saddam police and paramilitary are supposed to be U.S. partners, and at times their protectors, as American troops systematically leave the policing of urban centers to Iraqis. But even as the United States prepares to return sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, Kimmitt said Friday that the new reconstituted Iraqi "security apparatus"—which now outnumbers U.S. forces in Iraq—will not be well enough equipped or trained to take over for at least a year.
"That won't be the case on June 30," the general said. "That may be the case a year later. But we do not see that calendar date to be a date when we remove coalition oversight, coalition partnership with the Iraqi security forces."
Ourmashe was the first of three Iraqi women executed this week who had been working with the coalition. A day later, gunmen opened fire on a taxi, killing two sisters, ages 26 and 29, who were headed home after washing laundry for U.S. coalition members in the southern port city of Basra.
The killings of the laundresses as well as Ourmashe, all in southern Iraq, suggest that assassins may be increasingly targeting women in a campaign to intimidate Iraqis who work with Americans.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.