By Leila Fadel and Jinan Hussein
Sunday, April 4, 2010; A01
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.
Accounts of the incident differed, but residents said the killings started about 8 p.m. Friday. Some residents and relatives of the victims said the gunmen arrived in what looked like the pickup trucks driven by Iraqi federal police.
Others said that the men came on foot and that they apparently killed a man and a woman in the house where they hid all morning. They then reportedly walked to the house of Shaker Hamid, a member of the Awakening. The gunmen locked women and children in one room and took five men to the roof, where they slit their throats, Jubouri said. The attackers stole a truck from the house and drove to their next target. At least 16 people were shot in two other houses, residents said.
According to Qassim al-Aamree, whose sister-in-law was killed in the attack, the gunmen carried a list and called out names of residents, lined them up as they approached and shot them. He said 25 people were killed before the gunmen left about 9 p.m.
"It seems those criminal gangs of al-Qaeda in Iraq have started to become active again," said Mustafa Kamal Shibeeb, a leader of the Awakening in Arab Jubour, a Sunni area just south of the capital. "It was a horrific crime, killing these innocents, including women and children."
Shibeeb planned to run in the March 7 elections but was barred for supposed loyalties to the outlawed Baath Party.
A U.S. military official said he was seeing signs that al-Qaeda in Iraq was making overtures to the Sons of Iraq, whose members feel targeted by the government. Many of them are former insurgents, and government officials are distrustful of them. Some of the crimes they are accused of were committed before they promised to battle Sunni extremists and work within the law with the Iraqi government.
"Al-Qaeda is making a deal. They're offering amnesty to the Sahwa," he said, referring to the Awakening.
Baghdad security forces have detained 25 people in connection with the attack and freed seven people found in Hor Rajab with their hands bound, spokesman Qassim Atta said. At least five of the dead were women.
But tribal leaders in the area said that the detentions were random and that the attackers got away.
A Sunni political party that fared poorly in the elections suggested that the killings were not the work of Sunni extremists but were sectarian and supported by predominantly Shiite Iran.
"How could this happen while they are protected by official uniforms and carry out their crimes with government vehicles and weapons?" the Iraqi Islamic Party said in a statement, adding that it "strongly condemns and denounces this savage crime by the enemies of Iraq. It warns against the return of paid violence carried out through sinister foreign agendas aimed at taking Iraq back to the days of killing and displacement."
The attack will inject new tension into the skirmishing for dominance that is underway as the predominantly Shiite backers of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki try to head off a surprisingly strong challenge being mounted by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose backers include mostly Sunnis as well as some Shiites.
The period of uncertainty since the March 7 elections is expected to last well into the summer, and many officials worry that political battles could incite violence, potentially destabilizing the already fragile country as U.S. forces draw down.
Sunni Arabs who worked with the Americans as Sons of Iraq say they feel particularly vulnerable. "The Awakening people now are the easy targets for everyone," said Qais al-Jubouri, a tribal leader who worked with the U.S. military and the Iraqi military and government to forge reconciliation in his area of southern Baghdad. Jubouri, who won a seat in the next parliament, has been on the run since the issuance of an arrest warrant against him that he deemed politically motivated.
"The government targets us, and al-Qaeda targets us," he said. "The Americans are done with us, and they threw us under the bus. They lured us as friends, one by one."
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.