RAMADI, Iraq — Militants killed at least 18 Iraqi officers and soldiers in Sunni-dominated Anbar province Saturday, including a commander who oversaw a crackdown on Sunni protesters earlier this year, military sources said.
Islamist militants’ posts on online forums called the slain commander, Mohammed Ahmed al-Kurwi, a “criminal” and celebrated the attack, which security sources described as carefully planned and executed.
Al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militants have intensified attacks on Iraq’s security forces, civilians and anyone seen as supporting the Shiite-led government in recent months in the country’s deadliest violence in five years.
The circumstances of Saturday’s attack were in dispute.
The Defense Ministry said Kurwi, commander of the army’s 7th Division, and several other high-ranking officers were killed by a roadside bomb while pursuing militants from an al-Qaeda training camp in Anbar’s desert.
But other military sources said the officers were killed when three suicide bombers wearing explosive belts detonated themselves among the officers in the western town of Rutba, 225 miles west of Baghdad.
“All that we know so far is three suicide bombers wearing explosive vests came from nowhere and detonated themselves among the officers,” a military officer who was at the scene said by phone.
Some security officials suggested informants may have lured the commanders to the area under the pretext of raiding the al-Qaeda camp.
No specific group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but suicide bombing is the trademark of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, which merged this year with counterparts in Syria to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The assistant commander of the 7th Division, the commander of its 27th Brigade and several other high-ranking officers were also among those killed in the attack, officials said. An additional 32 soldiers were wounded.
Militant Islamists online portrayed Kurwi’s death as retribution for the killings of more than 40 people in a raid by security forces on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija in April.
“The criminal who was killed today at the hands of al-Baghdadi’s men was the leader of the Hawija massacre,” said one user on Twitter, referring to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The April raid, which Kurwi oversaw, followed months of protests by Sunnis against what they see as marginalization of their sect by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
ISIS insurgents have since stepped up attacks on strategic targets in parts of western Iraq in a bid to establish a state ruled by strict Sunni Islamic practice.