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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi authorities have discovered the bodies of 44 Iraqi soldiers and four drivers after they were ambushed and killed overnight near the Iraq-Iran border, an Iraqi military commander said Sunday.

Unification and Jihad, a group led by suspected terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility Sunday for the massacre. The claim appeared on an Arabic-language Web site, and CNN has not confirmed its authenticity.

Col. Jassem Mohammed Alaiwa, commander of the Iraqi national guard, said the soldiers were killed "execution-style" -- along with their four drivers. They had been forced to lie down and were shot in the head. The killings occurred about 80 miles east of Baghdad.

The soldiers had just completed training and were heading toward Basra in southern Iraq, Alaiwa said.

Two of their transport vehicles were stolen and two others were set on fire in the attack, he said, adding that the soldiers had not been robbed.

Alaiwa called the incident a terrorist attack. He has asked the Ministry of Defense for reinforcements in Mendili, part of Diyala province.

Discovery of the bodies was followed by news that insurgents had killed a U.S. State Department security official at a U.S. Army base near Baghdad airport. (Full story)

Unification and Jihad has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks and kidnappings since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Al-Zarqawi said in an audiotape posted on a Web site that he was behind the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, that killed 22 civilians, including the U.N.'s chief envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello

The group has said it has killed numerous Westerners in Iraq, including two Americans and a Briton kidnapped in September and later beheaded.

Another Islamist militant group, Ansar al-Sunna, claimed responsibility Sunday for the killing of a police chief in the northern city of Erbil, saying the action was a warning to the leader of a Kurdish political party.

In the Web site posting, the group sadi the killing of Col. Taha Ahmad was a "clear warning" to Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party -- one of two major Kurdish parties that share power in northern Iraq.

Ansar al-Sunna has called Kurdish leaders traitors for cooperating with U.S.-led forces in the invasion of Iraq. It claims responsibility for the killings of three KDP members in September and 12 Nepalese contractors in August.

This weekend's killings followed a continued pattern of insurgent attacks on the Iraqi army. Iraq's interim government is training forces to stabilize the region ahead of national elections set for January.

Three attacks Saturday

On Saturday, two suicide car bombings and a drive-by shooting killed at least 14 people in separate incidents.

The deadliest attack took place in western Iraq near Haditha at Camp Al-Asad, which is on the Euphrates River about 124 miles west-northwest of Baghdad.

U.S. Marine spokesman Lt. Lyle Gilbert said the suicide attacker killed 10 Iraqi police and wounded at least five others, and there were no U.S. casualties.

An Iraqi journalist on the scene said at least 30 people were wounded in the blast.

The car bomb targeted a police station, where dozens of Iraqis were lined up to surrender their weapons and/or join the police force, several witnesses told the journalist.

Several hours later, a suicide car bomb detonated at a highway checkpoint near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.

Two Iraqi national guard members were killed and another was wounded, a U.S. military spokesman said.

In the third attack, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, insurgents in a vehicle fired on a five-truck convoy, killing two Turkish drivers and wounding two other Turks, local officials said.

Earlier the U.S. military said that a newly promoted associate of al-Zarqawi had been arrested.

The al-Zarqawi associate was seized early Saturday along with five other terrorism suspects in southern Falluja, the insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, the military said.

Their identities were not disclosed.

Initially, the al-Zarqawi associate was thought to be a minor member of the terrorist's circle, however "due to a surge in the number of al-Zarqawi associates who have been captured or killed by [multinational forces] strikes and other operations, the member had moved up to take a critical position as an al-Zarqawi senior leader," the U.S. military said.

Falluja has been the site of intensified U.S. attacks in recent weeks, with American forces stepping up their efforts against al-Zarqawi and his group.

The U.S. State Department is offering $25 million for the capture or death of al-Zarqawi, whose group swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden last week.

Other developments

  • A U.S. warplane launched an airstrike Sunday northeast of Falluja, killing four people, including two Iraqi police officers, police officials told CNN. Police said the strike in the al-Jurayfi neighborhood also wounded five people. Hospital officials said a child was among them. There was no immediate word from the U.S. military about the report.
  • Insurgents attacked a multinational convoy Sunday and wounded four Bulgarian soldiers, the U.S.-led military said in a statement. A Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said one of the soldiers later died. She told CNN that the other three soldiers' injuries aren't life-threatening. The convoy, from the 1st Brigade Combat Team of Multinational Division Central-South, was attacked near Karbala, southwest of Baghdad, the military said.
  • About $500 million in unaccounted money from Saddam Hussein's former regime is being used to finance a growing insurgency in Iraq, a U.S. military intelligence official said Friday. (Full story)
  • CNN's Barbara Starr, Jamie McIntyre, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Nermeen Mufti and Caroline Faraj contributed to this report.

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