BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ The bodies of 14 policemen were found Friday northeast of Baghdad after an al-Qaida-affilated Sunni group said it abducted members of a government security force in retaliation for the rape of a Sunni woman by members of the Shiite-dominated police.
The brutal killing occurred in one of the provinces surrounding Baghdad, where violence remains high despite a sharp drop in bombings and sectarian killings in the capital since the start of the U.S.-led security crackdown last month.
Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the bodies were discovered Friday afternoon in Diyala province. The policemen were kidnapped Thursday on their way to their homes in Diyala for leave, he said.
Earlier Friday, the Islamic State of Iraq said in a Web statement that it seized 18 Interior Ministry employees in Diyala in retaliation for ``the crimes carried out ... against the Sunnis,'' including the alleged rape last month of a Sunni woman by policemen in Baghdad.
In a second statement, the group announced that its ``court'' had ordered the ``execution'' of the men and that a video depicting their deaths would be posted later, according to the SITE Institute, which monitors extremist Web sites.
Photos accompanied the claim, showing up to 18 blindfolded men, seven of them wearing Iraqi military uniforms. All had their hands tied behind their backs.
But Khalaf cast doubt on whether the 14 slain policemen were the same men shown on the Web site photos.
``We found the 14 policemen's bodies, but they are not those who are in the fabricated images on the Web site,'' he told The Associated Press. ``The Diyala police told us that they don't know who those people shown on the Web site were.''
Nevertheless, he blamed al-Qaida for the killings and said Iraqi authorities would ``chase those who assassinated these unarmed people.''
Also Friday, two U.S. soldiers and an interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad as they were trying to clear a highway of explosives.
The military also announced that a U.S. Marine was killed two days before in combat in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent area west of the capital.
Police in the Anbar capital of Ramadi said gunmen shot dead two members of a local soccer club practicing in a public field.
The New York Times quoted witnesses as saying 10 gunmen shot the two players _ Mohammed Hameed Nawaf and Mohammed Mishaan _ execution-style in front of horrified spectators after accusing them of collaborating with a Sunni group with ties to the Americans.
The assailants tied the players' hands and tried to drag them toward the cars, but the players resisted and struggled. Mishaan broke free and fell to the ground where he was shot, the newspaper said. Nawaf was then shot, the newspaper said.
It's clear civilians are facing increasing risks in the Sunni-dominated areas west of Baghdad, where insurgents have turned their killing power on those who have stood against them. Last week, a truck bomb killed more than 50 people leaving a mosque near Ramadi after the imam had preached against groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq had threatened to kill the hostages within 24 hours if the Iraqi government did not hand over officers accused in the rape case, and release all Sunni women held in Iraqi prisons.
``This blessed operation is a response to crimes carried out by those infidels in their fight against the Sunnis,'' the statement said. ``The latest of the crimes committed by these traitors was to rape our sister in religion.''
A 20-year-old woman told Arab television stations that she was detained in a Sunni area of west Baghdad on Feb. 18, taken to a police garrison and assaulted by three officers. The woman gave a name which identified her as Sunni.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, announced an investigation Feb. 19 but cleared the officers the following day, stirring outrage among Sunni politicians.
Al-Maliki said the rape claim was fabricated to tarnish the reputation of the police and the ongoing security crackdown in Baghdad.
Friday's statement from the Islamic State of Iraq referred to the rape victim by her name and identified her as Sunni.
However, officials of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni group, said the woman used a false name and that she is in fact a Shiite. The party's human rights office had been looking into the case.
Names of the officers involved in the case were not released, and it was unknown whether they were Sunni or Shiite.
In Baghdad, two car bombs killed at least 11 people in attacks Friday. The deadlier occurred at a used car lot near the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City, killing 10 people, wounding 17 and setting several cars ablaze, police said.
The other blast was near a police patrol in southwest Baghdad, killing a policeman and wounding two civilians, police reported.
Violence has dropped sharply in the capital since the Feb. 14 start of the security operation, in large part because the Shiite-led government convinced militiamen to withdraw. The U.S. military also said Friday that eight suspected militants were killed a day earlier in a raid in Salman Pak, a town just southeast of Baghdad where Sunni and Shiite extremists have frequently clashed.
U.S. forces came under small-arms and mortar fire, and killed three armed men moving toward them, the statement said. Twenty minutes later, troops were fired on again and shot dead four suspects. Another man was killed in a vehicle nearby, the statement said.
Sniper rifles, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were removed from the scene, it added.
Iraqi police and U.S. advisers arrested a Shiite militia leader Friday in the southern city of Hillah, the U.S. reported. He was suspected of involvement in roadside bombings that killed three coalition soldiers since December, the U.S. statement said.
In Fallujah, 45 miles west of Baghdad, residents reported finding handbills warning local tribes to abandon checkpoints they had established to detain members of al-Qaida. The handbills said al-Qaida would retaliate if the checkpoints remain.
The warning followed reports by Iraqi police of clashes between al-Qaida members and local residents opposed to the extremist group.
A roadside bomb exploded near an Iraqi army patrol 150 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing one soldier, police said.