17 Iraqi workers killed in bus attack

Violence viewed as effort to quash collaboration

By Nick Wadhams
Associated Press / December 6, 2004

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BAGHDAD -- Gunmen ambushed a bus carrying unarmed Iraqis to work at a US ammunition dump near Tikrit yesterday, killing 17 and raising the toll from three days of intensified insurgent attacks to at least 70 Iraqis dead and dozens wounded.

The attacks, focused in Baghdad and several cities to the north, seemed aimed at scaring off those who cooperate with the US military -- whether police, Iraqi National Guardsmen, Kurdish militias, or civilians trying to make a living.

The violence erupted weeks after the United States launched major offensives aimed at suppressing guerrillas before elections set for Jan. 30. Later yesterday, several small Sunni Muslim groups joined more-influential Sunni clerics in demanding that the vote be postponed by six months.

Yesterday's bloodshed began when gunmen opened fire at the bus as it dropped off Iraqis employed by coalition forces at a weapons dump in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, said Captain Bill Coppernoll, spokesman for the US First Infantry Division based in Tikrit. Coppernoll said 17 people died and 13 were wounded in the attack.

Survivors said about seven guerrillas were involved, emptying their clips into the bus before fleeing.

About an hour later, a suicide bomber drove into an Iraqi National Guard checkpoint in Beiji, about 75 miles to the north, detonating his explosives-packed vehicle, Coppernoll said. Gunmen then opened fire on the position. Three guardsmen, including a company commander, were killed and 18 were wounded, Coppernoll said.

Also yesterday, guerrillas ambushed a joint Iraqi- coalition patrol in Latifiyah, south of Baghdad, and attacked Iraqi National Guardsmen near Samarra, north of Baghdad. Two Iraqis were killed and 10 wounded.

The attacks seem to be an orchestrated campaign by the Sunni-led insurgency to strike Iraqis who cooperate with the Americans. On Friday, a police station was hit and 16 men were killed. On Saturday, suicide car bombs hit another police station, killing six people, and a bus carrying Kurdish militiamen, killing seven.

The raids also seem designed to resupply the insurgents' arsenal. Rebels behind the Friday attack looted the police armory. And yesterday, police said, armed men stormed a station about 30 miles south of Fallujah and stole two police cars and a large cache of weapons.

That has not stopped the coalition from arming Iraqi forces. The US-led Multinational Security Transition Command announced yesterday that Iraqi security forces had received deliveries in November of 5,400 AK-47s, almost 2,000 9mm Glock pistols, 78 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and millions of rounds of ammunition, as well as body armor, night-vision goggles, armored personnel carriers, and four Russian-designed battle tanks.

In addition to the Iraqi deaths, six US soldiers have been killed since Friday, including two soldiers slain Saturday during a patrol in Mosul's Palestine neighborhood, when they came under fire from insurgents shooting from two mosques and other buildings in the area, according to spokeswoman Captain Angela Bowman. The US military and Iraqi forces later raided a mosque and detained three suspects.

The raid drew several masked men onto the street in protest.

''I swear by God, I swear by God, I swear by God, our retaliation will be severe. God witness what I say!" a masked man shouted before speeding away in a car.

Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for several attacks Friday and Saturday. Another militant group, Jaish Mohammed -- Arabic for the Mohammed Army -- issued a statement yesterday saying its fighters were lying low for ''a few days" but planned more attacks.

The statement, which could not be verified late yesterday, also warned Iraqis against aiding coalition forces and said they would be attacked with fury similar to that directed against the US military.

The latest attacks on Iraqis cooperating with the interim government have been particularly brutal in scale and have taken on a new urgency in light of the approaching election.

The US-led coalition had hoped its invasion of the insurgent hotbed of Fallujah last month would cripple the insurgency. Instead, the rebels seem to have scattered, and after a brief lull, resumed their campaign.

The Americans also wanted Iraq's army and police force to play a larger role in calming the country before the elections. Instead, the home-grown troops have demonstrated their vulnerability to devastating, demoralizing attacks.

To increase security for the election, the Pentagon decided Wednesday to raise troop levels to 150,000 from 138,000, more than were initially deployed for the war to oust Saddam Hussein last year.

While Iraq's majority Shi'ites are eagerly awaiting the election, the Sunnis oppose it, partly because the violence has been heavy in their areas west and north of Baghdad and voter registration there has not begun. About 40 small, mostly Sunni political parties met yesterday to demand that the elections be postponed by six months, but stopped short of calling for a boycott.

President Bush, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq, and Iraq's Sunni president, Ghazi al-Yawer, have said the vote will proceed as scheduled.