17 Iraqi civilians killed in attack on bus
It was 8:30 a.m. Sunday, and a bus filled with Iraqi civilian employees came to a stop north of the city of Tikrit. Workers piled off.
Two cars pulled alongside, five to seven men got out, and they sprayed the civilians with automatic gunfire. When their bullets ran out, the gunmen drove away.
After the shooting spree, 17 Iraqis lay dead and another 13 were wounded, the U.S. military said in a statement. The gunmen apparently selected the Iraqis because they worked for the U.S. military helping to guard a storage site of seized insurgent munitions.
All the victims were unarmed, the latest casualties in a war that in the past few weeks has increasingly gone from direct clashes between insurgents and U.S.-led forces to rebel shootings of unarmed civilians, attacks on members of outgunned police forces and the use of car bombs. The change of strategy is designed to intimidate Iraqis in the runup to Jan. 30 elections.
The intent of insurgents was spelled out in new pamphlets entitled "Democracy is anti-Islam" that authorities said were discovered over the weekend outside of Baghdad.
"The pamphlets say they will cut off the head of anyone who takes part (in the election)," said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the interior ministry, adding that they also threaten civilian employees of the U.S.-led coalition and interpreters.
"Intimidation is becoming quite a problem," Kadhim added. "We believe they are accelerating their effort to prevent the election and to destabilize the government."
The massacre of civilians in northern Tikrit was one of several strikes by insurgents up and down Highway One, a main north-south route. Fighters attacked in or near the cities of Beiji, Kirkuk and Samarra and engaged security forces in gun battles in Baghdad, the capital.
In the first attack, insurgents at dawn ambushed an Iraqi army convoy near Samarra, 65 miles north of the capital, killing one soldier and wounding four others, said Army Capt. Bill Coppernoll, a spokesman for the First Infantry Division headquartered in the area. The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, he said.
Several hours later, a car bomb blew up in Beiji, an oil-refining center north of Samarra, killing three Iraqi National Guardsmen and wounding 18 others, a U.S. military statement said.
All told, 21 Iraqis were killed and 35 wounded in the day's attacks, capping three days of violence that have left at least 70 people dead, including six U.S. troops.
In the most recent attack involving the American military, two soldiers were killed and four others wounded in an ambush near Mosul in northern Iraq on Saturday afternoon, a U.S. military statement said.
It was the massacre of the civilians, though, that spilled the most blood.
"They were unarmed Iraqi civilians, just going to work," Coppernoll said.
The Iraqis were employed by a foreign contractor hired by the U.S. military to guard an ammunitions depot, one of several in northern Iraq that hold more than 14,000 tons of munitions and weaponry found in hidden caches of the toppled Saddam Hussein regime.
Some of the Iraqis aboard the bus survived, apparently because the gunmen, who were firing AK-47 automatic rifles, ran out of ammunition, Coppernoll said.
Asked why the civilians were attacked, Coppernoll said: "I think the insurgents are desperate. They know they can't make an impact attacking coalition forces. So they are going after innocent civilians or the Iraqi security forces to try to intimidate the population."
Interim government officials are troubled by the presence of foreigners within the insurgency, Kadhim, the government spokesman, said, noting that "a large number" of foreign jihadists are in Iraq and seeking more recruits abroad.
"The appeal is for all Islam to come to Iraq and to get rid of the infidels and start this Islamic state that they want to set up," Kadhim said.
In other developments:
- Security forces swept through Baghdad's al Dawrah district early Sunday, arresting 19 suspected insurgents and engaging in extended shootouts, authorities said.
- The chief of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society said he was withdrawing relief workers from Fallujah, where a massive U.S.-led offensive in November left some 2,000 dead, because of continued skirmishes in the city.
- A homemade bomb went off in the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, apparently targeting the passing convoy carrying the regional National Guard chief, Gen. Anwar Ahmed Ami. He was not hurt.