BAGHDAD - Shiite militants and police enraged by deadly truck bombings went on a shooting rampage against Sunnis in the northwestern Iraqi city of Tal Afar yesterday, killing as many as 70 men execution-style and prompting fears that sectarian violence was spreading outside the capital.
The killings occurred in the mixed Shiite-Sunni city of Tal Afar, which had been an insurgent stronghold until an offensive by U.S. and Iraqi troops in September 2005, when insurgents fled into the countryside without a fight. Last March, President Bush cited the operation as an example that gave him "confidence in our strategy."
The gunmen roamed Sunni neighborhoods in Tal Afar through the night, shooting at residents and homes, according to police and a local Sunni politician. Witnesses said relatives of the Shiite victims in the truck bombings broke into Sunni homes and killed the men inside or dragged them out and shot them in the streets.
Gen. Khourshid al-Douski, the Iraqi army commander in charge of the area, said 70 were shot in the back of the head and 40 people were kidnapped. A senior hospital official in Tal Afar, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said 45 men were killed.
Outraged Sunni groups blamed Shiite-led security forces for the killings. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office ordered an investigation, and the U.S. command offered help.
Ali al-Talafari, a Sunni member of the local Turkomen Front Party, said the Iraqi army had arrested 18 policemen accused in the shooting rampage after they were identified by Sunni families. Shiite militiamen also took part, he said.
The revenge killings among Shiites in the city 260 miles northwest of Baghdad were triggered by truck bombings Tuesday that killed 80 people and wounded 185.
Douski said one of the trucks exploded after the driver lured people in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood to the site by telling them he was distributing free flour from a humanitarian organization. The bombing caused surrounding buildings to collapse, leaving huge piles of concrete and bricks dusted with flour.
Videotaped footage from the scene was broadcast last night showing a man dead in the front seat of his car. Men and women carried the limp bodies of children powdered with flour. Others dug through the rubble with their bare hands in a search for survivors.
The hard-line Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars said the revenge killings were evidence "of the clear plot and coordination between the militias and the government forces of interior and defense." The Iraqi Accordance Front, the biggest Sunni parliamentary group, said the killings proved the need for an overhaul of Iraq's Shiite-dominated system.
"If yesterday's attacks were carried out by unidentified terrorists, today's events were conducted by well-known criminal policemen and they must be punished," Sunni lawmaker Dhafer al-Ani said. "The whole situation in Iraq needs to be reconsidered and a quick solution is needed to the political process."
Tal Afar, 90 miles east of the Syrian border, is mainly populated by ethnic Turks, with Shiites making up about 60 percent of the 200,000 residents.
The city has suffered frequent insurgent attacks, despite sand barriers erected around it by U.S. and Iraqi forces. But the situation had been calm in recent months, and some displaced Shiite and Sunni families had started to return to their homes.
Iraqi security forces shot two suicide truck bombers carrying highly toxic chlorine before they could reach a government complex in Fallujah yesterday, but the explosives detonated, wounding 15 U.S. and Iraqi forces, the American military said.
The chlorine-gas attack was the eighth since Jan. 28, when a suicide bomber driving a dump truck filled with explosives and a chlorine tank struck a quick-reaction force and Iraqi police in Ramadi, killing 16 people.
Iraqi police fired on the first suicide bomber, and Iraqi soldiers shot at the second. Both trucks exploded before they could get inside the compound that houses
the mayor's office, U.S. military offices, the city jail and police station.
The statement did not
give a breakdown of
how many Iraqi and U.S. forces were wounded.
At least 44 people were killed or found dead elsewhere in Iraq, including four in two car bombings in Baghdad.
A parked car bomb struck a market in the mostly Shiite city of Mahaweel, south of Baghdad, killing at least four people.