BAGHDAD (AP) â€” Iraq’s Shiite-dominated interior ministry, whose police forces have been accused of complicity in the sectarian attacks wracking the country, will change top commanders and has already fired 3,000 employees accused of corruption or rights abuses, a spokesman said Saturday.
Thousands have died this year in the cycle of killings between Shiite and Sunni death squads. At least 22 were killed Saturday, mainly in sectarian attacks.
Authorities also said they discovered the headless bodies of 17 Shiite construction workers in an orchard outside Baghdad, kidnapped and decapitated in apparent retaliation for an attack on Sunni Arabs last week.
The decapitated corpses were found Friday outside the city of Duluiyah, 75 kilometres north of Baghdad, along with four other unknown victims, also beheaded.
The killings of the workers came after the kidnapping Wednesday of three Sunni Arabs in Duluiyah by a Shiite group based in Balad, police said. The three were killed and their bodies burned. After the discovery of the bodies late Friday and early Saturday, Sunni families living near Balad were starting to flee their homes, fearing Shiite retaliation.
A US airman operating with an Iraqi police unit was killed Saturday in combat in Baghdad, the military said, bringing to 46 the number of US servicemembers who have died in Iraq this month.
The Shiite-led national police force, controlled by the interior ministry, is widely accused of being infiltrated by Shiite factions blamed in slayings of Sunni Arabs.
Critics say Prime Minister Nuri Maliki has been reluctant to move against the armed groups since many are linked to parties in his coalition.
The US embarked on an intensive neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood sweep of the capital in August in a crackdown on the killings.
But Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite slum of about two million where radical cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army draws much of its support has not been entered as part of the security operation, and US commanders say they are waiting on the command from Maliki’s government.
Amid the growing tensions between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah met Saturday with prominent Iraqi clerics from both sects in the Holy City of Mecca.
He urged them to seek an end to the violence to allow the two sides to reconcile. “My brothers, we need now patience, calmness and quietude to get to know each other,” the king told them.
When Maliki’s government was formed in May, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani was given the post as top security official in large part because he had no links to armed factions. But his lack of such connections has also given him less leverage to make change.
Spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the shake-up would ensure stronger action to stop the violence.
“We are working on reshuffling the ministry’s vital posts like [the leaders of the] police commandos and public order forces, as well as some undersecretaries,” he told the Associated Press, without elaborating.
He said most of the 3,000 employees who had been removed since May were suspected of corruption or human rights violations, but did not specify whether they were involved in armed activities. Up to 600 of them will face prosecution, he said.
Earlier this month, an entire brigade of some 700 policemen were suspended from service and taken to barracks because of â€œsuspected militia sympathiesâ€. The commander of one of the brigade’s battalions faces criminal prosecution and others are being investigated.
The troops were suspected of allowing Shiite factions to operate freely in their area, where there had been a mass kidnapping of some two dozen people from a frozen food factory, at least seven of whom have since been found dead.
Problems with the brigade emerged during a broad brigade-by-brigade assessment of police in Baghdad carried out by the US military over the summer. At the time it was taken off line, the top US military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, suggested many of the policemen were involved in allowing death squads to operate and would not be brought back.
Still, Khalaf played down the role of the ministry’s police forces in violence, blaming instead the Facilities Protection Service, rather than the police. The FPS, created to guard government buildings and infrastructure, has some 150,000 members but an unclear command structure.
The FPS “is part of the problem in the death squad activities. They are not working under the supervision of either the interior or the defence ministry by under the ministries that use them,” Khalaf said. US commanders have also said FPS members may be carrying out a large portion of the killings.
The interior ministry has also said that many attacks are carried out by people impersonating either Iraqi soldiers or police, and this month introduced new uniforms for certain units and new markings for police vehicles.
In one of Saturday’s bloodiest attack, seven people were killed in an early morning mortar attack on a small Sunni village near Baqouba, 60 kilometres northeast of Baghdad. Residents blamed Shiites for the attack, in which four mortar rounds were fired into the village.
Another five people were injured, provincial police said.
In the evening, gunmen in a vehicle opened fire in the Shiite village of Wahda, killing three women and four men.
Police pursued them and caught one of the attackers, a Sunni gunman, police said.
Around dawn, a Shiite family of four were killed in Mahmoudiya, about 30 kilometres south of Baghdad, army Capt. Oday Abdul-Ridha said. Abdul-Ridha said assailants dressed in military-style uniforms had stormed into the family’s house.
In Baghdad, an employee of government-run TV was killed in a drive-by shooting Friday night, police said.
Raed Qais Shammari, a technician with the Iraqiya station, was standing near his home talking with a friend when he was shot by a gunman from a car in the violence-wracked Dora neighbourhood, police said.
The attack follows the killings Thursday of 11 people at Baghdad’s private Shaabiya television station. Shiite gunmen are suspected to have carried out that attack, possibly due to perceptions the newly formed station was backing their Sunni Arab rivals.