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Iraqis probe apparent death squad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi Interior Ministry has launched an investigation into an alleged police death squad.

Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority has claimed for more than a year that members of Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated security forces intimidate, kidnap and murder Sunnis, but the probe was triggered by Iraqi soldiers' chance discovery of 22 Iraqi men in police uniforms allegedly preparing to kill a Sunni man.

The Chicago Tribune first reported the detention of the 22 men in Thursday's editions.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Negard, a spokesman for the American-led effort to train Iraqi forces, confirmed the Iraqi investigation. It marks the most public and forceful action that the Shiite-led government has taken to pursue the allegations.

Even so, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician, told Knight Ridder on Thursday that he didn't trust the Interior Ministry to conduct a thorough, independent investigation.

"We lost that trust a long time ago," he said.

Iraq's majority Shiites were repressed under Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni regime.

Last June, Knight Ridder documented several instances in which Sunni men who'd been detained by uniformed men in police vehicles later were found dead. The Interior Ministry denied any involvement.

Although there's never been any proof that Interior Ministry forces were involved, suspicions ran high, in part because the interior minister, Bayan Jabr, is a leading member of the Shiite-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which has close ties to the Badr Organization, a prominent Shiite militia group that's linked to Iran.

Reining in ethnic and religious violence, including that perpetrated by Iraqi security forces, is crucial to establishing widespread confidence in Iraq's fledgling democratic government. Failing to do so could lead to civil war and forestall the withdrawal from Iraq of U.S.-led coalition forces, which are imposing some measure of law and order.

Negard confirmed that the 22 men were detained at an Iraqi army checkpoint late last month after they told the soldiers that they were taking a Sunni man to be killed. American forces are holding four men who are thought to be the group's leaders, and Iraqis are detaining the other 18, he said.

In what could be a related account, the Dar al Salam (Home of Peace) newspaper—which is connected with the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni group—reported Tuesday that Iraqi soldiers had detained a group of men at a checkpoint Jan. 20.

The soldiers grew suspicious when the men, whose cars included an Iraqi highway patrol vehicle, couldn't produce a warrant for the arrest of a man in their custody. Some of the men subsequently said they'd kidnapped the man and intended to kill him, the newspaper reported.


(Hannah reports for the Contra Costa Times. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report from Baghdad.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.