BAGHDAD -- Iraqi and U.S. special forces have arrested at least 59 army officers and enlisted men in connection with killings, bombings and kidnapping in the latest case linking elements of the Iraqi army to sectarian militias and criminal gangs, authorities announced yesterday.
Meanwhile, at least 60 people were killed in a spate of car bombings and shootings across Iraq.
The raid Tuesday on the defense ministry's military academy in the eastern Baghdad district of Rustamiyah provided the latest evidence of the Iraqi army's continuing struggle to eradicate lawless elements in its midst. Authorities said the ringleader of a criminal gang on campus was the academic dean. The group was wanted in killings, bombings and kidnappings, including the killing two years ago of the school's director, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. The current director, kidnapped several weeks ago, was freed Tuesday.
"The individuals detained had allegedly used security personnel to murder, kidnap and conduct attacks using improvised explosive devices and EFPs [explosively formed penetrators]," U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said.
EFPs, capable of blowing a hole in a tank, are associated mainly with Shiite Muslim militias. The U.S. military has accused Iran of supplying the design and materials for such explosives.
This month, the U.S. military arrested a commander for expelling Sunnis from homes and ordering attacks on American soldiers. The officer had led the Baha Arraji battalion - a special unit created by the defense ministry under pressure from Sadrists in government. It was mostly composed of members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and was broken up in May by the Defense Ministry; however, many remained loyal to the group and stayed together in military companies, officials said.
"This is very much a work in progress, and it's most important that the government of Iraq and their ministries step up to those challenges and hold their people accountable," Bergner said yesterday at a news conference in Baghdad.
The Iraqi army's ability to take over responsibility for American forces is deemed crucial for any large-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. One student at the military college painted a picture of a siege as the Iraqi special forces and Americans entered the compound Tuesday. The special forces said they were looking for militia members, said the student, who was afraid to give his name. Gunshots rang out on the campus, with apparent clashes between the units and some of the wanted soldiers.
Staff and students were rounded up on the academy's playing field, where Iraqi special forces screened them for pictures of men on their wanted list, the student added.
An Iraqi military investigation had been continuing for three months, Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari told the Los Angeles Times.
"They are gangs. They have nothing to do with militias," he added. "They have been doing it for money."
Meanwhile, two car bombs exploded simultaneously yesterday in the mainly Shiite western Baghdad neighborhood of Baiyaa, killing 32 people. It was the deadliest blast in the capital since June.
The bombs targeted a district that had a mixed population until the spring, when sectarian fighting resulted in the expulsion of most Sunni residents. The attack came in the last hours before Muslims break their daylong fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
At least 20 additional deaths were reported in northern Nineveh province, where four car bombs exploded. One of them blew up by the house of a tribal sheik outside of Sinjar near the Syrian border. The U.S. military said the tribal leader was a critic of the militant group al-Qaida in Iraq.
The U.S. military, which says that violence has declined since a buildup of American forces in Iraq this year, acknowledged that violence has increased in the past week.
Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.