Iraqis in military uniforms kill 24 in Sunni area

Gunmen wearing military uniforms raided a village outside Baghdad and killed at least 24 people, apparently targeting a Sunni group that revolted against al Qa'eda.

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BAGHDAD // Gunmen trying to pass themselves off as US and Iraqi soldiers raided a Sunni village outside Baghdad and killed at least 24 people in an execution-style attack, apparently targeting a Sunni group that revolted against al Qa'eda in Iraq, authorities and witnesses said yesterday. The bloodshed late on Friday comes amid increasing concerns that insurgents will take advantage of Iraq's political turmoil to further destabilise the country, nearly a month after parliamentary elections failed to give any candidate a decisive win.

Many fear a drawn-out political debate could spill over into violence and complicate American efforts to speed up troop withdrawals in the coming months. Details remained sketchy, but police said gunmen travelling in at least four cars raided three homes in Hawr Rijab, killing 19 men and five women after binding them in handcuffs. Some of the victims, police said, were marched onto the roofs of their homes and killed there.

Some had broken arms and legs, indicating they had been tortured before they were shot, police said. One witness said many were so badly brutalised that they were "beyond recognition." At least seven people were found alive, bound with handcuffs, authorities said. The killings were reminiscent of those that plagued Iraq at the height of the sectarian bloodshed of 2006 and 2007, when men, sometimes dressed in police or army uniforms, snatched people from their houses at night before killing them and dumping the bodies. Similar violence still plagues the country, but it has ebbed sharply.

In November, gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms abducted and killed 13 people in the village of al-Saadan near the town of Abu Ghraib on Baghdad's western outskirts. One survivor said the gunmen gained entry to her home by speaking English and convincing her mother they were Americans on a patrol. "My mother thought they were Americans who came to search the house, that's why she opened door," said the woman, who ran to another room after seeing the attackers. Her mother and two brothers were killed.

"I heard four gunshots," the woman said. "It was all over in a second." The woman did not give her name, but she agreed allow an AP Television News crew to tour her home, where blood was spattered on the white kitchen cabinets and pooling on the floors. A senior Iraqi army official who arrived at the scene of the crime Friday evening said witnesses told him the gunmen were wearing uniforms that resembled those of the American military, and that they tricked the residents by saying they were coming to ask them how they were faring in their village.

The US military did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment. The American presence on Iraqi streets has been drastically reduced since the US withdrew from cities last summer, the first step toward a full withdrawal by the end of next year. US raids of people's homes were common in the years that followed the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, but the Americans have turned over authority to the Iraqis and no long have free rein in the country.

Iraqi military spokesman Maj Gen Qassim al Moussawi said some witnesses reported Friday's attackers were wearing Iraqi military uniforms, a claim echoed by other police officials and villagers. Many of the dead were members of a local Sahwa, or Awakening Council - one of several names for the Sunni fighters who changed the course of the war when they revolted against al Qa'eda in Iraq and joined the Americans in late 2006 and 2007, said Mustafa Kamel, a Sahwa leader south of Baghdad.

Mr al Moussawi blamed the killings on al Qa'eda, which has frequently targeted the groups. Police cordoned off the area and forced residents to stay inside their homes as helicopters swarmed overhead and authorities searched for suspects. By late afternoon, 25 people had been arrested, Mr al Moussawi said. "The area has many orchards and streams, so it is difficult to secure," he said. Members of the Iraqi military have been accused in the past of taking part in past extra-judicial killings, but their uniforms are also widely available on the open market and have been used by insurgents as disguises. Militants also have pretended to be Americans in attacks, including a daring ambush on a local government headquarters in Karbala that killed five US soldiers on January 20, 2007.

Friday's violence happened in the Arab Jabour area a former insurgent stronghold about 25 kilometres south of Baghdad that is a collection of industrial zones, villages and palm and citrus groves. Arab Jabour is a gateway to the capital that was used by insurgents before they were crippled by the US troop surge and the Sunni militia uprising. Many Iraqis fear the insurgents are trying to regroup after indecisive national elections.

Former prime minister Ayad Allawi's cross-sectarian bloc tapped into heavy Sunni support to come in just two seats ahead of the mainly Shiite list of the incumbent, prime minister Nouri al Maliki in the March 7 vote. But neither side has enough seats to govern alone. On Friday and Saturday, an influential anti-American cleric - and potential kingmaker - Muqtada al Sadr held an unofficial poll of his supporters, asking them to decide which candidate he should support. The winner was expected to be announced today.

* AP