Iraqi Prime Minister escapes bomb attack

Published April 21, 2005 12:16PM (EDT)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Al-Qaida in Iraq, the country's most feared terror group, claimed responsibility Thursday for a suicide car bombing that targeted interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's convoy but did not harm the Iraqi leader.

Meanwhile, a commercial helicopter crashed north of the Iraqi capital Thursday, killing nine people, the U.S. Embassy said. U.S. military officials said the helicopter was contracted by the Defense Department, but the embassy could not confirm that.

In a separate attack, a roadside bomb exploded on the highway leading to Baghdad's airport Thursday, heavily damaging three SUVs carrying civilians. Police Capt. Hamid Ali said two foreigners were killed and three wounded in the burning vehicles. But U.S. Embassy and military officials could not confirm the casualties.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Defense Ministry identified 19 bullet-riddled bodies found Wednesday in a stadium northwest of the capital as fishermen, not soldiers as initially rumored.

Investigations indicated the men had come from the southern Diwaniya and Najaf provinces to fish in Tharthar lake when they were captured by insurgents and taken to the stadium at nearby Haditha, said Saleh Sarhan, the ministry's chief spokesman. He did not say how the victims had been identified or why they might have been captured.

Iraq has seen a week of stepped up violence, much of it in the capital, as political leaders struggle to agree a new Cabinet from the country's complex mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds nearly three months after Iraqis elected a 275-seat National Assembly.

The attack against Allawi's convoy came on a day of multiple bombings and shootings in the embattled capital and elsewhere which killed at least 13 people and wounded 21.

They included an Australian security contractor and two other foreign nationals who died when unidentified assailants fired at their vehicle in Baghdad, Australian officials said in Sydney on Thursday.

Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for several of the attacks, including the one on Allawi, in statements that surfaced on Web sites known for their militant content.

"Allawi escaped, but if one arrow missed its target, there are many others in the quiver," one of the statements said. It was not possible to verify the claims.

In Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, residents heard gunshots Wednesday and rushed to the stadium, where they said they found the 19 bodies slumped against a bloodstained wall. All appeared to have been gunned down, witnesses said.

Residents initially said they believed the victims -- all men in civilian clothes -- were soldiers abducted by insurgents as they headed home for a holiday marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. But residents and an Iraqi reporter saw no military identification on the bodies.

In October, insurgents ambushed and killed about 50 unarmed Iraqi soldiers as they headed home from a U.S. military training camp northeast of Baghdad.

Interim President Jalal Talabani also announced Wednesday the recovery of more than 50 bodies from the Tigris River, saying the discovery was proof of claims that dozens were abducted from an area south of the capital despite a fruitless search by Iraqi forces.

Talabani did not say when or where the 50 bodies were pulled from the river, but he said all had been identified as hostages.

"Terrorists committed crimes there. It is not true to say there were no hostages. There were. They were killed, and they threw the bodies into the Tigris," Talabani told reporters. "We have the full names of those who were killed and those criminals who committed these crimes."

Shiite leaders and government officials claimed last week that Sunni militants had abducted as many as 100 Shiites from the Madain area, 14 miles southeast of Baghdad. But when Iraqi forces moved into the town of 1,000 families, they found no captives, and residents said they had seen no evidence anyone had been seized.

Madain is at the tip of a Sunni militant stronghold known as the "Triangle of Death," where there have been numerous retaliatory kidnappings. Police and health officials said victims are sometimes killed and dumped in the river.

As summer approaches and temperatures start to rise, bodies have been floating to the surface, said Dr. Falah al-Permani of the Swera district health department. He said as many as 50 bodies have been recovered over the past three weeks. But it was not clear whether they were the bodies referred to by Talabani.

By Jamie Tarabay

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