They were a group of unarmed army recruits, young Iraqis who had volunteered to help build a force capable of providing their country with security when the international troops had returned home.
But, to the insurgents, they were seen as traitors working hand-in-hand with the hated powers of occupation. And so, they were massacred, 49 of them, in one of the most brutal acts of violence in the current rebellion.
With Iraqis scheduled to go to the polls in January - and Americans voting next week - the murder of the army recruits starkly demonstrates the difficulty of building a domestic force capable of performing the function of foreign troops when they leave. It also makes a nonsense of claims that the situation on the ground is stabilizing.
The attack took place near Baquba, 40 miles north-east of Baghdad, part of the Sunni triangle into which British soldiers based in Basra in southern Iraq will begin deploying within the next 48 hours. Yesterday, the troops, from Black Watch, held their last church service before the journey to the Iskandariyah area, near Baghdad, to help US forces who are preparing the assault on Fallujah.
The Iraqi men had been on their way home on Saturday night to the cities of Amara and Kut from a training base run by the Americans outside Mandali in eastern Iraq, near the Iranian border, in five minibuses. They had checked in their weapons at the base and were dressed in civilian clothes. They were stopped on a stretch of road between Baladruz and Badra in the Diyala province by insurgents dressed as security personnel at a fake checkpoint between three and five in the afternoon on Saturday. The gunmen shot the tires of the buses and fired rocket-propelled grenades at the engines of the first two vehicles.
The recruits were taken in batches of 12 to the side of the road and made to remove their shoes and lie face down on the ground before being shot in the back of the head.
The killings are seen as a significant step in the growing confidence and propensity to violence of the militants. Although hundreds have died in bombings and mortar attacks, this is the first time they had carried out a planned operation with such a high number of casualties.
Last night, a group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who abducted and killed the Briton Ken Bigley, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The discovery of the bodies yesterday took place on another day of killings across Iraq.
Ed Seitz became the first member of the US diplomatic staff to be killed since the invasion during a mortar attack on Camp Victory, a guarded military base near the airport. Five more people were killed in US air strikes on Fallujah.
Mr Seitz, a senior security specialist for the State Department, was involved in planning protective measures for US officials. Last year, he investigated the attempted assassination of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, regarded as one of the architects of the Iraq invasion, in Baghdad.
Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said: "Ed's death is a tragic loss to me personally, and for all of his colleagues at the Department of State. Ed Seitz died in the service of his country and for the cause of liberty and freedom for others. There is no more noble a sacrifice".
John Negroponte, the US ambassador to Iraq, declared: "He came to Iraq, as did his fellow Americans here, to help the Iraqis defeat terrorism and the insurgency, establish democracy, and rebuild their economy".
But it is the fledgling Iraqi army and police that are taking the brunt of attacks by insurgents and yesterday's killings were a blow to a force with morale already plummeting.
On Saturday, two suicide bombings against the police and the Iraqi National Guard killed 20 people. Last week, nine policemen returning from training in Jordan were killed when their minibus was ambushed south of Baghdad.
An Iraqi militant group claimed it had assassinated the chief of police in the northern city of Arbil and threatened to kill Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. The Army of Ansar al-Sunna said it had killed Colonel Tah Ahmed on Saturday as a message to Mr Barzani that "the hands of the mujahideen would soon reach him".
There have been persistent reports insurgents have infiltrated the Iraqi security apparatus, receiving training and weapons from the US and the British while setting up attacks on other members of the force.
Aqil Hamid al-Adili, the deputy governor of Diyala, said: "There was collusion. Otherwise the gunmen would not have got the information about the soldiers' departure".
Ali al-Kaaki, a commander in the Iraqi National Guard, said: "These people were executed. It was done as an example. The insurgents could have just attacked the buses and killed them. But they were making a point. Villagers called the police."
Iraqi politicians, including those in the government, have begun to express doubts about whether, with rising attacks, viable elections can be held at all in January.
The United Nations, which is supposed to play a main role in organizing the elections under a Security Council resolution, still has fewer than 40 personnel in the country. Attempts to get member countries to supply troops to protect UN personnel so more officials can come has failed to produce any offers, apart from a small contingent from Fiji.
Further large-scale violence also appear to be imminent with the expected US assault on Fallujah and the threat by insurgents to step up their campaign during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Instead of the hoped-for return of foreign investment and aid organizations which left the country as the violence stepped up, the exodus has grown with the spate of kidnappings with Margaret Hassan, the head of the charity Care International in Iraq, the latest victim.
© Copyright 2004 lndependent/UK