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At least 17 bodies found in Iraqi desert town near Syrian border

QAIM, Iraq (AP) At least 17 bodies in civilian clothes were found scattered near a town close to the Syrian border that is considered an insurgent hotbed, with 11 shot in the head and another beheaded, witnesses said Friday.

The 11 who were shot in the head had their hands tied behind their backs, according to the witnesses, which included a reporter for The Associated Press. They were found near a small hamlet called Jabab, about 19 miles east of Qaim. It was unclear when they were killed.

The Interior Ministry also confirmed that another six bodies were found near Qaim outside the village of Fosfat. Interior ministry Maj. Falah al-Mahamdawi said the six men were found Thursday. They all had civilian ID cards.

It was unclear if the bodies had any connection to a group of about 20 Iraqi soldiers that have been missing from the Qaim area since late Tuesday.

Qaim, about 200 miles west of Baghdad, has been the scene of numerous U.S. military and Iraqi army operations. U.S. Marines carried out two major operations in the area last month, with a total of 11 Marines being killed in the campaigns.

Al-Qaida in Iraq, the terror group led by Jordanian-born Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed in an Internet posting that it had abducted a total of 36 Iraqi soldiers in western Iraq on Wednesday. The posting, on a Web site known to carry militant statements, could not be verified independently.

''A group of the infidel guards was arrested and investigated Wednesday,'' it said.

The group added that the men confessed their crimes ''against Sunnis and their loyalty to crusaders.'' To release them, it gave the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari a day to set free ''Muslim women'' held in Iraqi prisons. It did not elaborate.

Capt. Ahmed Hamid said the soldiers disappeared Tuesday after leaving an Iraqi army base in two minibuses from Akashat, a village near the Syrian border about 70 miles southwest of Qaim.

Hamid, contacted by telephone at an Iraqi military base in Qaim, said the soldiers were wearing civilian clothes and traveling to Baghdad for a vacation.

Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier died Thursday of non-combat injuries near Tuz Khormato, about 130 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.

Five other U.S. soldiers were wounded Thursday when a suicide car bomber attacked their convoy between Beiji and Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, but none of the injuries was life-threatening, the military said.

At least 1,684 U.S. military members have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

In southern Basra, gunmen killed the dean of the city's police academy, Col. Karim al-Daraji, police said.

The European Commission, meanwhile, said Friday it plans to have a delegation in Baghdad within a month, re-establishing a permanent mission for the first time since before the 2003 Iraq war.

Briefing reporters after returning from the EU's first high-level visit to Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the mission will be small but would grow as the security situation permits.

''The security situation is difficult, and that's also the reason why we haven't opened a mission yet,'' she said. ''But we need a delegation there, with all the possible care given to security.''

The EU wanted to appoint a charge d'affaires who could engage in a political dialogue with government authorities, she said. The EU wants the delegation located in the Green Zone, the security enclave in the center of Baghdad that also houses the U.S. Embassy.

The EU delegation's one-day visit to Baghdad on Thursday was to prepare for a major donors' conference in Brussels, Belgium, later this month.

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