BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi police found the bodies of 14 policemen on Friday, all shot in the head, and an al Qaeda-linked group said it had killed them to avenge the alleged rape of a woman last month.
Police said the bodies were discovered close to Baquba, the provincial capital of Diyala province, not far from where the men disappeared on Thursday.
A group called the Islamic State in Iraq said in an Internet statement it had kidnapped 18 men working for the Shi‘ite-dominated Interior Ministry following “the rape of our sister ... Sabreen Janabi”.
The group later said it had killed them all after the government ignored demands it made for their release.
Janabi has said she was raped by officers from the Shi‘ite-dominated police force. The government says medical records show she was not raped.
In Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi troops are engaged in a major security crackdown, police said a car bomb killed 10 people and wounded 17 when it ripped through a used car market in Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mehdi Army, a Shi‘ite militia.
U.S. and Iraqi military officials said on Thursday troops would soon launch operations to seize weapons and hunt gunmen in Sadr City, signaling their resolve to press ahead with the last-ditch security plan even in sensitive areas.
The Mehdi Army is headed by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a key backer of Shi‘ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Diyala, north of Baghdad, is home to Shi‘ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds and has been the scene of relentless bloodshed.
A police source in Diyala said 14 men, including a high-ranking officer, left their base in Baquba around 11 a.m. (0800 GMT) on Thursday to return to their homes in the area of Saadiyet al Shat, north of the city, but failed to arrive.
The first Internet statement of the Islamic State in Iraq group included photographs of 18 men, some in uniform and some in civilian clothing, blindfolded in a room.
The Islamic State in Iraq demanded the Shi‘ite-led government hand over the officers behind the rape and release all Sunni Muslim women in Interior Ministry jails within 24 hours or it would carry out “God’s verdict” on the detainees.
“The Islamic State in Iraq has given the infidel government of (Nuri) al-Maliki 24 hours to respond to its demands ... but it (the government) did not give any importance for their blood,” the group said in a later statement announcing the men had been killed.
The group includes al Qaeda and several smaller insurgent groups. The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.
A major Sunni Arab political party has said the woman was Shi‘ite, not Sunni, and that Janabi was a false name.
Sectarian tension was fueled last month by the reports of rape by the woman in Baghdad and another woman in Tal Afar, in northwest Iraq, who said soldiers raped her.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Dean Yates and Ibon Villelabeitia