BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Many disaffected officers of Saddam’s Hussein’s army joined the Sunni-led insurgency after the Americans abolished the armed forces in 2003. Now Iraq’s defense minister has invited them back.

There’s a catch – the officers’ rank must be no higher than major and they must pass a background check to make sure their loyalties belong to the new Iraq.

The top ranks of the old army were dominated by Saddam’s fellow Sunni Arabs. Some former officers are known to be helping insurgents with planning, tactics and instruction on explosives and weapons.

Tens of thousands of lower-ranking soldiers, mostly Shiites, later found their way back to service when Iraq began to rebuild its army and police forces. It is uncertain how many ex-officers will respond to the call since there was nothing to prevent many of them from joining the new army before.

Word of the recruitment came Wednesday on another violent day in Iraq. A suicide bomber detonated a minibus in an outdoor market packed with shoppers ahead of a Muslim festival, killing about 20 people and wounding more than 60 in a Shiite Muslim town south of Baghdad. Six U.S. troops were killed, two in a helicopter crash west of the capital.

Also Wednesday, the U.S. command confirmed moves to step up training on how to combat roadside bombs – now the biggest killers of American troops in Iraq. At least 2,035 U.S. military service members have died since the Iraq conflict began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The suicide bombing occurred about 5 p.m. in the center of Musayyib, a Euphrates River town 40 miles from Baghdad. On July 16, nearly 100 people died in a suicide bombing in front of a Shiite mosque in Musayyib.

Witnesses said the attack took place as the market was crowded in advance of the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Many women and children were feared among the dead and wounded.

“They want to kill people before the feast,” said Nagat Hassoun, 50, who lived a few hundred yards from the blast site. “They want people to stay at home and live in a tragedy. The aim is to cause sabotage. They’re targeting the Shiites.”

The town police chief, Lt. Col. Ahmed Mijwil, said 22 people were killed and 61 wounded. But officials warned the figures could change as rescuers frantically searched the area of meat and vegetable stalls, shops and cafes.

“The insurgents wanted to cause as many casualties as possible,” said police Capt. Muthanna Khalid.

Elsewhere, fighting flared between U.S. troops and Sunni Arab insurgents in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province 70 miles west of Baghdad. Late Tuesday, a U.S. Marine and sailor were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle in Ramadi.

Sporadic clashes occurred throughout the night and into Wednesday, residents said. Associated Press Television News video from the city showed a burning civilian vehicle and what appeared to be a destroyed U.S. Humvee.

A crowd of Iraqis gathered at the site, and one man, waving the remnants of a damaged U.S. M-16 rifle in the air, claimed the attacks caused U.S. casualties.

Later Wednesday, a Marine AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter crashed just north of Ramadi, killing its two Marine crew members, the military said. A U.S. statement said the cause of the crash was under investigation.

But APTN quoted an Iraqi resident as saying the helicopter was shot down. Hours after the crash, a Marine Corps F-18D fighter jet dropped two 500-pound bombs on what the U.S. military described as an “insurgent command center” about 400 yards from where the helicopter went down.

There was no report of casualties in the airstrike.

In Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, a U.S. soldier was mortally wounded when his patrol came under small arms fire Wednesday, the military said. One insurgent was killed when the American patrol returned fire and another died when a U.S. Air Force jet blasted the building where he had taken refuge, the military added.

The sixth fatality was a soldier from the Army’s Task Force Baghdad who was killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday in a southern district of the capital, the military said.

The latest deaths follow the fourth deadliest month for American troops since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Most of the 96 Americans killed in October were victims of roadside bombs.

The U.S. decision to disband Saddam’s 400,000-member army soon after he was ousted in April 2003 has been widely seen as a major contributor to the growth of the insurgency, which is fueled by Sunni ex-soldiers.

A Defense Ministry official said Wednesday that former soldiers wishing to re-enlist must report to recruiting centers Nov. 5 through Dec. 15. They will be interviewed and undergo background checks before they can return to active service, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

He said Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab, made the decision.

The U.S. command said it is accelerating counterinsurgency training for newly arrived officers, including the best ways to protect their troops against roadside bombs.

Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the U.S. command will soon open the training school at Taji, an air base 12 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. troops undergo counterinsurgency training before heading to Iraq, but the command wants newcomers to become familiar with the latest insurgent tactics.

There was no claim of responsibility for the Musayyib attack – the third major vehicle bombing in a predominantly Shiite area of Iraq within the last five days. A total of 50 people had already been killed since Saturday in car bombings in Basra and a Shiite village in central Diyala province.

In other violence Wednesday, at least 13 Iraqis were killed and 25 wounded in scattered shootings and other bombings around the country.



Associated Press correspondent Mariam Fam and Omar Sinan contributed to this report from Baghdad.

AP-ES-11-02-05 1852EST


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