BAGHDAD, Mar. 2 — Two soccer players were murdered in front of their teammates in Ramadi, witnesses said, and a group of Interior Ministry employees were abducted in Diyala province as brutal sectarian violence continued to rage across much of Iraq.
Witnesses said that the masked gunmen who shot the two soccer players execution-style accused the two men of collaborating with a Sunni group with ties to the American occupation authorities.
As the sun set on Thursday, three cars carrying 10 men drove up to a community playground a few hundred feet from Ramadi’s main government building, where a friendly soccer match was underway between two neighborhood teams. The men poured out of the cars and seized the two players — Muhammad Hammed Nawaf and Muhammad Meshaan, both in their 20s.
The assailants tied the players’ hands and tried to drag them toward the cars, but the players resisted and struggled.
“Muhammad tried to run away, but he stumbled on a rock, fell on the ground, and the armed men shot him dead at once,” said Khalid Al-Ghargholi, the manager of the Ramadi team, speaking of Mr. Meshaan. “They started yelling, ‘This is the destiny of anyone who works with secret police.’ ”
Mr. Ghargholi said that the gunmen were referring to the Salvation Council of Anbar, a group led by a Sunni sheik, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, who has opposed armed groups in the area and has ties with the Iraqi government and the Americans.
After his teammate was killed, Mr. Nawaf challenged the men to free him. “He said, ‘If you have anything against me, shoot me, but if not, leave me alone,’ ” Mr. Ghargholi related.
Spectators at the soccer match froze, fearing for their own lives, as the gunmen grabbed the two players, according to Mr. Nawaf’s father, Hameed Nawaf Al-Zuali. “They killed them before the audience,” he said through tears, “and nobody moved to help them.”
Maj. Tareq Yussef of the Ramadi police corroborated the witnesses’ reports and said, “The killers are from Ramadi for certain.” It was not clear whether there would be any effort made to apprehend them.
Revenge was the stated motive in the kidnapping of 18 employees of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in Diyala Province.
A Sunni Arab militant group called the Islamic State of Iraq posted a statement on a militant web site today claiming responsibility for the kidnappings, and said they were in retaliation for the rape of a Sunni Arab woman by members of the Shiite-dominated police force. The group demanded that the government immediately turn over the men responsible for the rape and free all Sunni women prisoners.
An Al Qaeda-led group posted photographs on a web site showing a group of Iraqi Interior Ministry employees abducted in Diyala province.
The web posting included a photo that showed the 18 men, blindfolded and with their hands apparently tied behind their backs. Seven wore Iraqi army uniforms.
Late in the day, the group announced that it would kill the men because the Iraqi government had failed to meet its demands.
The Interior Ministry said that the bodies were found today of 14 police officers who disappeared late Thursday as they traveled from Baqouba to Khalis. It was unclear whether the 14 were among the group of 18 abductees claimed by the militant group, or represented a separate incident.
Diyala has become a center of the sectarian conflict in Iraq, especially in the days since Iraqi and American forces began a stepped-up effort to secure Baghdad. Some 42 Americans have been killed in Diyala in the last six months, in contrast with just two over the six-month period before that, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths by province.
The mass kidnapping is the latest incident in a long-running and bloody battle between Sunni Arab insurgents and gangs, who effectively control much of Diyala, and the Shiite militias and Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces, which the insurgents regard as one and the same.
Diyala’s population of about 1.4 million is half Sunni Arab, but the levers of power are controlled by Shiites who, according to American military officials, have made plain their intention to hold sway over the strategic province permanently.
Fighting near the largely Sunni city of Falluja continued today, and a car bomb detonated near a used-car market in the Shiite-dominated eastern side of Baghdad killed 4 and injured 20.
Two soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter who were attached to Multinational Division Baghdad died today when a roadside bomb exploded as they searched for improvised explosives on a heavily traveled route to the northwestern part of the capital.
These events, as well as signals of likely resistance to the new Baghdad security plan in the largely Shiite, densely populated Sadr City neighborhood, emphasized again the difficulties that Iraqis and Americans face in trying to bring even a semblance of stability to the populous central swath of the country.