Gunmen in military garb kill at least 24 in Sunni area south of Baghdad

By Leila Fadel and Jinan Hussein
Sunday, April 4, 2010

BAGHDAD -- Gunmen pretending to be Iraqi security forces and U.S. soldiers killed at least 24 people here, shooting some and slitting others' throats as they moved from house to house, officials and residents said Saturday.

The victims of the hour-long incident included women and children, but most were members of the Awakening, Sunni paramilitary forces also known as the Sons of Iraq that battled insurgents at the behest of the U.S. military.

The targeted killings were perhaps the most brutal since the horrific spiral of sectarian assassinations in 2006 and 2007 pulled Iraq into a state of civil war. With American forces no longer patrolling Iraqi cities, the killings also reinforced a sense of abandonment among Arab Sunnis, whose tribes defied insurgents to join forces with the United States despite their distrust of the Shiite-led government.

The Americans completed the transfer of control of the Sons of Iraq to the Iraqi government last year.

Iraqi officials and local residents said they believed that the killings south of Baghdad were carried out by Sunni insurgents seeking to avenge the tribes' defiance and terrify the local population. But there were competing assertions that the killers were Shiites, who formed death squads to kill Sunnis during Iraq's darkest days and who might now be seeking to strike back against the surprising political clout that Sunnis displayed in last month's parliamentary elections.

The U.S. military pulled out of Iraq's cities over the summer but maintains a small presence in the rural belt of Baghdad, which in the past has been home to insurgent havens. Most of the information the Americans receive about violence in Iraq now comes secondhand through Iraqi commanders.

"The Americans abandoned the people who helped them to enter this area, and now what's happening? Now they are being killed and arrested, and no one protects them," said Adai al-Jubouri, a tribal chief.

A woman in the area Saturday night begged visitors to stay away, saying she was worried that she and her sons would be the next victims. "It's dangerous now, they've returned to the killings. Don't go there," the woman said.

The U.S. military condemned the attack but referred questions about it to the Iraqi government.

Philip Frayne, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, called the killings "barbaric." "Nothing can possibly justify them. We're concerned anytime people are senselessly murdered. We urge the Iraqi police and judicial authorities to investigate this massacre thoroughly and bring those responsible to justice," he said.

The incident began Friday morning when gunmen slipped into the neighborhood of Hor Rajab, a vast area of farmland just south of Baghdad, and hid in a house waiting for darkness.

Rumors quickly spread that Americans were in the area after the men inside the house yelled "Go, go!" in English to approaching residents, Jubouri said.

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