BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Hundreds of Iraqi policemen fell sick from poisoning Sunday at a base in southern Iraq after the evening meal breaking their daily Ramadan fast, and officials said they were investigating whether the poisoning was intentional.

An official with the Environment Ministry said 11 policemen had died. However, the governor of Wasit province – where the poisoning took place – denied any deaths, though he said some of the victims were in critical condition. There was no immediate explanation for the contradictory reports.

Some of the policemen began bleeding from the ears and nose after the meal, said Jassim al-Atwan, an inspector for the Environment Ministry, who was serving as a liaison in the investigation between the Health Ministry and the base, located in the town of Numaniyah.

“Hundreds of soldiers were poisoned after taking food and water in the iftar,” Wasit Gov. Hamad al-Latif said, referring to the meal that breaks the sunrise-to-sunset fast during the Islamic holy month. “Investigations are under way to determine the cause.”

Samples of the food and water were being tested “to determine the substance in them” and will be sent to Baghdad for further tests, al-Latif said.

Sunni insurgents who have targeted police and military forces with bombings and shootings have not been known to use poisoning as a weapon. But the suddenness and severity of the sickness raised speculation that the incident could be a new attack. The division is mainly made up of Shiites.

Between 600-700 policemen were affected to varying degrees, and 11 who had the heaviest amount of the food had died, al-Atwan told The Associated Press.

Some of the soldiers collapsed as soon as they stood up from them meal, others fell “one after the other” as they headed out to the yard in the base to line up in formation, al-Atwan said.

Iraqi ambulances and helicopters sent by the U.S. military rushed the policemen to hospitals in Numaniyah and the nearby city of Kut.

The afflicted policemen belonged to the 4th Division of the National Police, nicknamed the “Karrar” Division, after a title of Imam Ali, the most revered Shiite saint.

The division normally operates around the town of Salman Pak on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad – an area of intense Shiite-Sunni killings. The division was sent to the base in Numaniyah, 60 miles southeast of the capital, for further training.

Al-Latif said food and water at the base are provided by an Australian contractor working through Iraqi subcontractors. He did not identify the Australian firm.

AP-ES-10-08-06 1854EDT

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