Prague, 25 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The ambush and killing of the 49 Iraqi National Guard troops had the planning and precision of a military operation.
It took place as the soldiers were heading home to the south of Iraq late on 23 October from their training base near the central Iraqi town of Ba'qubah. As their three mini-buses traveled through an empty desert region near the Iranian border, insurgents posing as policemen halted them at a false checkpoint.
An Iraqi officer, Colonel Jassim al-Sa'di, described what he saw hours later when Iraqi authorities reached the scene: "Last night at 10:00 p.m. we and the police department of Mandali were informed of a massacre on Badra-Qazanya. A joint patrol of the National Guard and the police rushed to the site of attack, which lies about 70 to 80 kilometers east of Mandali. We arrived there at 11:00 p.m. and we found them arranged in groups of 12 lying on their faces with bullets in the head and one vehicle burnt out. I have now 36 bodies."
The death toll has since been put by the government at 49 soldiers. Most of the soldiers -- who were traveling unarmed -- were killed execution-style. Some dozen of them were gunned down as they tried to flee.
The United States' most-wanted insurgent, Jordanian militant Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, has claimed responsibility. Al-Zarqawi's group, Jama'at Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, recently renamed itself as Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad in Bilad al-Rafidayn (Organization of Jihad's Base in the Country of the Two Rivers [Iraq]), said in an announcement on a militant website that "the mujahedin killed them all, stole two vehicles and the salaries they had just received from their masters."
Analysts say that Iraqi insurgents appear to increasingly regard the fledgling Iraqi forces as a softer target than coalition forces.
The killing of the freshly trained soldiers is the deadliest ambush since the insurgency began in Iraq after the U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein in April last year. It is also the latest in a series of almost daily attacks targeting government efforts to recruit police and soldiers to help stabilize and secure the country ahead of planned elections in January.
The ambush on 23 October came on the same day two car bombs in central Iraq at a military base and a checkpoint killed a total of 18 Iraqi policemen, guardsmen, and recruits. Analysts say that Iraqi insurgents appear to increasingly regard the fledgling Iraqi forces as a softer target than coalition forces.
Phillip Mitchell, a ground forces specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told RFE/RL that Iraqi forces are less well-defended than coalition troops and easier for insurgents to infiltrate to get information to set up ambushes. "They probably see the Iraqi forces as an easier target, that is, the recruits who are lining up to sign on, perhaps [because they have] no defensive measures to protect them at that time," he said. "Their intelligence too must be reasonably good to target these individuals."
"The Wall Street Journal" reported today that more than 1,500 members of Iraq's new security forces have been killed in militant attacks. By comparison, U.S. forces have lost some 1,100 soldiers, including noncombat deaths, since operations in Iraq began in March 2003.
But analysts say that strategic considerations are likely only one reason for the increased attacks on Iraqi government forces. The insurgents also may hope the attacks will set back recruitment efforts by creating an impression that government forces are too weak to defeat the insurgents.
That would help undermine the Iraqi public's confidence in the government as it prepares for a first round of national and local elections planned for January. The poll -- to elect an assembly to appoint a new interim government and oversee the writing of a constitution -- is seen by U.S. and Iraqi officials as a chance to broaden popular support for their efforts to create a new post-Hussein order.
The government of Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has vowed to punish those responsible. Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan al-Khuza'i told reporters in Baghdad that "once we identify and arrest the perpetrators, we will take tough measures against them. God willing, when we arrest them, they will receive capital punishment."
Meanwhile, as insurgents increasingly target government forces, new evidence has emerged they may have greater manpower and financial resources than previously estimated.
"The New York Times" recently quoted U.S. officials as saying privately that there are some 8,000 to 12,000 rebels in Iraq including Hussein loyalists, so-called nationalist groups, and foreign fighters. The U.S. military and government officials also said the rebels can draw on "unlimited money" from networks run by former Ba'ath Party leaders and extremist Islamic organizations outside the country.
The new estimate of the number of rebel fighters is almost twice that of earlier U.S. intelligence reports, which have spoken of 2,000 to 7,000 men.[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]