Twenty-one bodies found in Iraqi desert

Insurgents in western Iraq killed five US Marines and sliced the heads off three Iraqis, part of a group of 21 men whose bodies were found dumped in the desert near the Syrian border after being gagged and shot.

Insurgents in western Iraq killed five US Marines and sliced the heads off three Iraqis, part of a group of 21 men whose bodies were found dumped in the desert near the Syrian border after being gagged and shot.

The death of the Marines in a roadside bomb attack and brutal slaying of the 21 Iraqis, believed to be part of a group of missing soldiers, came as politicians seeking a political solution to the insurgency once again appeared bitterly divided over a promise to give Sunni Arabs a bigger say in charting Iraq’s future.

The Marines were killed on Thursday while conducting combat operations near the volatile Sunni triangle town of Haqlaniyah, 90 miles northwest of Baghdad, the military said.

Their death brought the death toll of US military members in Iraq to at least 1,689 since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The US military also said it launched a criminal inquiry into last Tuesday’s killings of two Army officers near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

Seven US soldiers and two Iraqi civilians were injured in a botched suicide car bombing in the northern city of Mosul, the military said.

Six of the soldiers returned to duty, it added.

A car bomb killed four men today and injured another nine as they sat outside a takeaway restaurant in northwestern Baghdad waiting to pick up falafel sandwiches, a popular Arab staple made with fried chickpeas, police said.

The 21 Iraqi bodies were found 78 miles west of Haqlaniyah, along a highway that bisects Anbar and meanders along the Euphrates River toward Qaim and into Syria.

Shot repeatedly in the head, they were found strewn in three different locations, haphazardly dumped by the roadside in a gravel pit and in sand flats. Three were headless and at least one had been badly chewed by animals.

All were found around Qaim, a dusty and often lawless Iraqi frontier town that sits at the crossroads of an insurgent smuggling route leading into the country from neighbouring Syria.

The bodies were thought to belong to a group of 21 off-duty Iraqi soldiers that went missing two days earlier. They had left their base near Qaim in civilian clothes aboard two mini vans and were headed to Baghdad for a vacation.

The killings were a clear sign of the difficulties faced by US and Iraqi forces in the province and their inability to sealing the porous desert border with Syria.

US Marines carried out two major operations in the area last month, killing a total of 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and 14 in the second, Operation New Market.

A total of 11 Marines were killed in both actions, designed to root out and eradicate insurgents using the western road from Baghdad to Damascus.

In southern Basra, in the south of Iraq, gunmen killed the dean of the city’s police academy, Col Karim al-Daraji, police said. An Iraqi soldier was killed and another injured when a roadside bomb exploded today in central Iraqi town of Mashru, the Polish military said.

In Baghdad, Iraqi politicians and others were divided over a promise by Kurdish President Jalal Talabani to give Sunni Arabs more seats on a special 55-member committee that will help draft Iraq’s first postwar constitution.

The charter must be ready by mid-August and presented to the 275-seat National Assembly by mid-August, for approval by Iraq’s 27 million people in a referendum two months later.

It requires both the participation and vote of Sunni Arabs - thought to make up 15 to 20% of the country’s 27 million people.

In Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, the two US Army officers were killed on Tuesday evening in what the military first believed was an “indirect fire” attack on Forward Operating Base Danger.

An indirect fire attack involves enemy artillery or mortar rounds fired from a location some distance away.

“Upon further examination of the scene by explosive ordnance personnel, it was determined the blast pattern was inconsistent with a mortar attack,” the statement added without elaborating.

The statement said the military’s Criminal Investigation Division is investigating their deaths as a criminal case.

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