55 dead in Iraq as gunmen seize local government building

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 29, 2011 

BAGHDAD — At least 55 people were killed Tuesday and 95 injured when gunmen posing as Iraqi security troops stormed the Salahuddin provincial council building in the city of Tikrit and took dozens of people hostage, including members of the council.

The gunmen executed at least three members of the council and set their bodies on fire before detonating the explosive belts they were wearing, killing the remaining hostages and all of the hostage takers.

No group took responsibility for the attack, though suspicion immediately fell on the Sunni Muslim insurgent group al Qaida in Iraq.

Witnesses said U.S. troops responded to the attack and entered the building with Iraqi forces trying to rescue the hostages. No U.S. casualties were reported, however, and it wasn't clear how many of the dead were hostages, gunmen or members of the Iraqi security forces. At least three of the gunmen were wearing explosive suicide belts, Iraq's Interior Ministry said.

Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad, is the hometown of the late dictator Saddam Hussein.

A barrage of mortar fire that struck near the building preceded the attack, police said. After the barrage, armed men dressed in Iraqi security force uniforms arrived, saying they'd been sent to protect the building, according to a police official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.

The men, however, turned out to be insurgents and they began shooting people as they entered the building, the police official said.

A car bomb exploded as the real security forces arrived. Three high-ranking officers, including the provincial police chief, Col. Emad Ofan, were killed.

Mazin Abdul Hameed, an Iraqi journalist who was at the scene before the car bomb exploded, said evidence indicated an intense firefight.

"I saw the pockmarks made by bullets on the walls of the building and I expected clashes to break out any moment, so I decided to go somewhere safe," he said. "When I reached my car, the car bomb detonated. I saw many people on the ground. Some of them were seriously injured."

At least one of the dead was a journalist working for the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya, news reports said.

(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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