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 charged Monday.
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.
U.S. officials said they had no information on what had taken place. No American soldiers were involved in the incident.
It was another in a growing list of deadly confrontations between Iraq’s rival Muslim sects, the Shiites, 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 think the incidents are pushing the country toward civil war.
In other developments:
“Insurgents ambushed an Iraqi military checkpoint at dawn Sunday in the Khalis area north of Baghdad, killing at least nine soldiers. Rebels attacked the post, then detonated explosives hidden among melons in a truck a couple of miles away, apparently as reinforcements arrived, 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.
“ Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, back in Baghdad after his first official trip to neighboring Iran, said Iraq is capable of training its forces within the country. His statements conflicted with Iranian claims that Iraq had struck a deal for Iran to train some Iraqi recruits.
“The U.S. military announced that it had killed 14 suspected insurgents in two days of fighting in Tal Afar, a sporadically restive city 260 miles north of Baghdad. American forces sustained no casualties.
The 10 men who died in the container – plus at least one who survived – had been arrested for unknown reasons late Sunday while visiting relatives at a Baghdad hospital, according to accounts from Sunni political groups, statements from a survivor of the incident 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 Shiite-dominated government and the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Police who were guarding the hospital demanded the men’s ID cards and noticed that they were all 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 Monday that he had been among the detained men, said they pleaded for air but were told to keep quiet. Saleh, who appeared to be in his late 20s, said he played dead and was taken with the bodies Monday to Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad, where doctors found a pulse and treated him.
Members of the Muslim Scholars Association said people who tried to retrieve the bodies also were arrested and “faced the same destiny.”
“Are these acts to keep security or is this terrorism? We put these questions to the world to answer,” read a Muslim Scholars Association news release that listed the dead men’s names.
Iraqi police officials were tight-lipped about the case, saying political and sectarian sensitivities prevented them from discussing it. At first, the official police spokesman said he had no knowledge of the incident and appeared to doubt that Iraqi commandos were involved.
“Anyone can wear a police uniform,” police Col. Adnan Abdul Rahman said. “You can find them anywhere.”
Later, the Iraqi government acknowledged that an investigation was under way, but at least five officials reached by phone refused to comment for the record.