Assailants massacre Sunni men, youths in Iraq's Abu Ghraib

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 16, 2009 

BAGHDAD — In a massacre that revived memories of Iraq's worst years of sectarian bloodshed, assailants dressed in Iraqi army uniforms savagely killed 13 men and boys late Sunday near the restive city of Abu Ghraib, according to Iraqi officials and villagers.

Many of the victims — some of whom reportedly were beheaded, while others were shot and then mutilated — were members of the Awakening, a Sunni Muslim movement that with U.S. backing and funding has fought the terrorist group al Qaida in Iraq.

Residents and security officials said that shortly before midnight, armed men in civilian vehicles raided two villages near Abu Ghraib — a city to the west of Baghdad that houses a major prison — took captives to a nearby cemetery named Seyid Mhimmed and killed them.

"I believe they were targeted because they formed Sahwas (Awakening councils) in the area and fought back al Qaida," said Ibraheem Ismail, who described himself as a first cousin of seven of the victims and more distantly related to the rest.

Among the dead were a father and two sons, three brothers and several local leaders, including the sheik of the local mosque, who was a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni political group.

While it wasn't immediately clear who was responsible, the killings and other violence Monday raised fears of a resurgence by the Sunni extremists of al Qaida in Iraq.

In Anbar province, just west of Abu Ghraib, explosions targeted the houses of police officers before dawn Monday and again Monday evening. Twelve people, including four officers, were reported wounded.

"I accuse al Qaida of rearranging their cards and playing at a new strategy," said Salam Ajmi, a member of the local government in Fallujah. He said militants were entering the city from elsewhere in Iraq, adding: "They still have some supporters in the city whom they can depend upon, and I believe that the coming days will witness higher levels of violence due to the upcoming elections."

The apparent targeting in Abu Ghraib of the anti-al Qaida in Iraq Awakening movement highlights uncertainty over its members' future after U.S. troops withdraw from the country. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government has resisted incorporating members of the Sunni movement, some of whom previously cooperated with al Qaida in Iraq, into Iraq's security forces.

While sectarian violence has dropped dramatically, it's still a daily occurrence, and there are concerns that the violence could grow again in advance of national elections tentatively scheduled for January.

Fears that the planned American troop withdrawal from Iraq next year will leave Sunnis who've worked with the U.S. vulnerable, as well as the upcoming elections, appear to be fueling a resurgence of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, a U.S. intelligence official said Monday.

"We're . . . also seeing what appears to be al Qaida (in Iraq) regrouping and gaining or regaining some sympathizers, evidently in preparation for the U.S. withdrawal, which of course will leave some of those who chose to work with us very vulnerable, as we saw today," said the official, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence he discussed is classified.

Iraq's parliament approved a long-delayed election law Nov. 8, but it's in limbo again, further unsettling the political atmosphere. Iraq's three-member presidency council must sign off on the legislation, but President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, have demanded changes to give greater representation to displaced Iraqis.

The Iraqi Islamic Party demanded that the government investigate the Abu Ghraib killings, and it complained that government security in the area has been lax.

The "barbaric massacre ... brings to our minds the crimes of the years of security breakdown," the party said, referring to the peak of violence in 2005-2007.

The area around the killings was still cordoned off Monday evening, and residents complained that security forces were detaining people at random.

The Iraqi military's Baghdad Operations Center said the perpetrators came from the area around the two villages where the victims lived, Aabid and Khudhair.

Residents, members of the Zobae tribe, fiercely disputed that. "If they had been from the area, we would have recognized them; we are all related here," Ismail said. "They want to believe that we did this to ourselves, that it is a tribal matter, but it isn't."

Until now, November had been the least violent month in Iraq in recent memory. According to the Web site icasualties.org, political violence has killed one U.S. soldier and, before Monday, 12 members of the Iraqi security forces and 29 civilians. The site says that the civilian casualty figures are incomplete, however, and the true numbers are undoubtedly much higher.

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad and Jamal Naji in Fallujah contributed to this article.)

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