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Iraqi police accused in deaths of 10

Tribesmen were allegedly locked inside container

BAGHDAD, Iraq --Ten Sunni Muslim tribesmen died after American-trained Iraqi police commandos kept them in an airtight container for more than six hours in 115-degree heat, outraged Sunni clerics and politicians alleged yesterday.

Iraqi authorities launched an investigation into the deaths and suspended three top officers from the commando unit involved, an Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

US officials said they had no information on what had taken place. No US soldiers were involved.

It was another in a growing list of deadly confrontations between Iraq's rival Muslim sects, the Shi'ites, who now dominate the government and its police forces, and the Sunnis, who flourished under Saddam Hussein and form the backbone of the country's stubborn insurgency. Many experts said they believe think the incidents are pushing the country toward civil war.

The 10 men who died -- plus at least one who survived -- had been arrested for unknown reasons Sunday while visiting relatives at a Baghdad hospital, according to accounts from Sunni political groups, statements from a survivor, and Iraqi government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss an open investigation.

The men all belonged to the al-Zobaa tribe, whose most prominent member is Sheik Hareth al-Dhari, perhaps the most militant Sunni cleric in Iraq. Al-Dhari leads the hard-line Muslim Scholars Association, an influential vehicle for Sunni rage against the Shi'ite-dominated government and the US military presence in Iraq.

Police guarding the hospital demanded the men's ID cards and noticed they were members of al-Dhari's tribe. They were then taken to a police station at al Nisour Square, where they were locked in what was described as a cargo-type container with no ventilation.

Dhia Adnan Saleh, who told a news conference yesterday that he had been among the detained men, said they pleaded for air but were told to keep quiet. Saleh said he played dead and was taken with the bodies to Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad, where doctors found a pulse and treated him.

Iraqi police officials said political and sectarian sensitivities prevented them from discussing the case. At first, the official police spokesman said he had no knowledge of what had occurred and appeared to doubt Iraqi commandos were involved.Later, the Iraqi government acknowledged that an investigation was underway, but at least five officials reached by phone declined to comment for the record.

In other developments:

The US military announced it had killed 14 suspected insurgents in two days of fighting in Tal Afar, 260 miles north of Baghdad. US forces sustained no casualties.

Insurgents ambushed an Iraqi military checkpoint Sunday in the Khalis area north of Baghdad, killing at least nine soldiers. Rebels then detonated explosives hidden among melons in a truck a couple of miles away, according to Iraqi authorities. The authorities said 35 insurgents were killed in the clash.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari pledged more Iraqi protection for foreign diplomats, who were shaken last week by the abduction and execution of Egypt's top envoy to Baghdad. Militants also have attacked Bahraini, Pakistani, and Russian diplomats in the past week.

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