BAGHDAD, Iraq – The bodies of 18 young Iraqi Shiites killed last month while seeking work at a U.S. base have been found in a field near Mosul (search ), police said Thursday, as the Iraqi government extended a state of emergency for a month because of violence ahead of landmark elections.
Police said the insurgents shot the 18 men, who ranged in age from 14 to 20, execution style on Dec. 8 after stopping their two minibuses about 30 miles west of the volatile city, 225 miles north of Baghdad.
Their hands were tied behind their backs and each was shot in the head, police said. All the men were Shiite Muslims from Baghdad's northern neighborhood of Kadhimiya (search ) who had been hired by an Iraqi contractor to work at a U.S. base in Mosul.
The bodies were discovered Wednesday, the same day a homicide attacker blew up an explosives-laden car outside a police academy south of Baghdad in Hillah during a graduation ceremony, killing 20 people.
A second car bomber killed five Iraqi policemen in Baqouba Wednesday — bringing the death toll to at least 90 so far this week in surging violence aimed at derailing this month's elections.
In a statement posted on a Web site Thursday, the Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), claimed responsibility for both the Hillah and the Baqouba attacks. The United States has offered a $25 million reward for al-Zarqawi's capture — the same amount as for Usama bin Laden (search).
The state of emergency, originally announced two months ago, was extended for 30 days throughout the country except for the Kurdish run areas north of the country, a government statement said. The decree includes a nighttime curfew and gives the government additional power to make arrests and launch operations.
"We expect some escalation (of attacks) here and there" ahead of Jan. 30 elections, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said. "This is a precaution to protect the Iraqi people as well as the elections."
Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, ground forces commander in Iraq, also predicted more violence leading up to the elections and said he couldn't guarantee the safety of all voters.
"I can't guarantee that every person in Iraq that wants to vote, goes to a polling booth and can do that safely," Metz told reporters. "We're going to do everything possible to create that condition for them, but we are fighting an enemy who cares less who he kills, when he kills and how he kills."
Meanwhile, as foreign ministers from Iraq's neighboring states met in Jordan Thursday, King Abdullah II tried to temper remarks that reflected Arab fears the elections will produce a Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraq that will align itself with Persian Iran.
In an interview published Thursday by Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai Al-Aam, the king stressed he was not opposed to Shiites and said his comments that Iran was trying to influence the vote and create "Shiite crescent" had been misinterpreted.
Iran, a predominantly Shiite state, called the remarks an insult to Iraqis. It was the only neighbor that did not send its foreign minister to the meeting, intended to urge Iraqis to defy boycott calls and take part in the elections.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, echoed Abdullah's claims Thursday, saying the world should not fear that Iraq's elections will set up an Iranian-style government in Baghdad.
"I believe those fears are exaggerated and misplaced," Zebari told The Associated Press before the ministerial meeting. "We have a political (process) that checks and balances this (domination by a religious group)."
In a separate execution-style incident, the bodies of three Jordanian truck drivers shot in the head were discovered on the outskirts of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, an AP photographer at the scene said Thursday.
A note placed on one of the bodies warned: "This is the fate of anyone who cooperates with the Americans."
Police also discovered two beheaded Iraqi policemen, their bodies charred from a fire Thursday in a house in Basra used by election officials to organize the Jan. 30 national vote, a police official said on condition of anonymity.
Elsewhere, gunmen shot dead the police chief of Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City, Brig. Gen. Karim Hussein, as he was driving his car in another district of the capital, police said.
In the central town of Adwar, U.S. First Infantry Division Soldiers detained four who admitted they participated in an attack against Iraqi security forces last month, the U.S. military said.
The Iraqi government announced Thursday that it has paid a total $1.3 million in rewards for people who gave information that led to the capture of more than 500 insurgents in the past six months. The statement did not specify exact sums paid to individual informants.
A Marine belonging to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was killed in action Thursday while conducting operations in the Al Anbar province in western Iraq, the military said in a statement that did not give further details.
Despite the mounting attacks and death toll, Iraq's interim leader has insisted the ballot would go ahead as planned.
"We will not allow the terrorists to stop the political process in Iraq," Allawi said Wednesday.
If the election takes place, it is expected to shift power to the Shiite Muslim community, an estimated 60 percent of the population that has been dominated by the Sunni Arab minority since modern Iraq was created after World War I.
In another development, Ukraine's Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk traveled to Iraq Thursday for a two-day visit to discuss reducing the country's 1,650-strong force ahead of a complete withdrawal from the U.S.-led coalition by year's end.