Attacks leave Iraqis trembling

Mourners grieve Saturday as they ride with coffins of relatives killed in a village outside Baghdad. Gunmen killed at least 25 in an execution-style attack Friday night.  (Associated Press)
Mourners grieve Saturday as they ride with coffins of relatives killed in a village outside Baghdad. Gunmen killed at least 25 in an execution-style attack Friday night. (Associated Press)

Killers dressed in military uniforms

BAGHDAD – It was after dark when the men in uniform entered the first home. Inside, they found three men and shot them using guns with silencers. Then they stole the victims’ van and drove to the next house and killed again. Within an hour, the gunmen had methodically made their way through four homes and shot dead 25 people.

Their work done, they left on foot, disappearing Friday evening into the palm trees and orange groves of the Hawr Rajab district south of Baghdad.

Many of the victims had belonged to the U.S.-backed Awakening movement, Sunni paramilitary groups that took a stand against the militant group al-Qaida in Iraq and played a key role in the 2007 U.S. military “surge” against the insurgency. But three women and two girls were also among the dead, according to accounts from residents and security officials.

Saturday, people in the isolated villages south of the capital locked themselves in their homes after an attack that echoed the darkest days of civil war and raised concerns that the country’s deadlock over forming a government could provoke a renewal in sectarian bloodshed.

Last month’s elections polarized the country, with Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refusing to accept that an alliance led by his rival Ayad Allawi, favored by Sunnis, had won more parliamentary seats than his bloc. Some Iraqi security officers, U.S. military personnel and Western officials are expressing concern that al-Qaida in Iraq could re-establish itself on Baghdad’s rural perimeter and cause havoc before the next government is formed.

The attack Friday appeared designed to intimidate the Sunni population. Residents of Hawr Rajab said the attackers arrived in the afternoon in American-style military uniforms. They seized an abandoned home, and one of the men, pretending to be a interpreter, told villagers in a mix of English and Arabic that the “American soldiers” were on a mission.

Some witnesses said the men’s guns had laser pointers, adding a note of eerie efficiency to the raids.

The carnage reminded some of the arbitrary killings during the rule of al-Qaida in Iraq in the so-called Baghdad belt. For others, the events conjured up memories of uniformed Shiite militiamen busting down doors and dragging away Sunni men.

But no one was sure.

“All of the people here are terrified. We don’t know what’s going to happen at night. We are going to lock our doors and stay inside. Only God can help us,” Hawr Rajab resident Hadi Hamid Abbas said. “I am lost and I don’t know who to accuse.”

The killings were a gruesome example of the dread that has descended on the rich farmland that girdles the southern edges of the capital.

Only a hard-fought campaign in 2007 and 2008 by the Awakening groups and the Americans rid the area of al-Qaida in Iraq’s enclaves. But the promise of incorporating the fighters, many of them former insurgents, into the security forces dissolved when the program was handed over to the Iraqi government in late 2008 and most Sunni fighters were moved into civil ministries.

Now, as U.S. troops draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August and the Iraqi government wages a campaign of arrests against senior tribal and Awakening leaders, residents are afraid. With trust in Shiite-led government forces almost nonexistent, rural Sunni communities believe they are at the mercy of al-Qaida in Iraq.

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