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11 dead in Baghdad mass slaying, showing fragility of gains there

BAGHDAD — Gunmen in Baghdad's Shaab neighborhood stormed into a house not far from an Iraqi police checkpoint and killed 11 members of an Iraqi journalist's family, witnesses and journalism organizations reported Monday.

Iraqi police and U.S. military officials said they had no record of the killings. But family members confirmed that the killings took place on Sunday in a neighborhood controlled by the Mahdi Army militia. The militia is loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

It was the third mass killing reported in Baghdad since Friday, underscoring the fragility of recent declines in violence. Car bombings on Friday and Sunday killed at least 22 people and injured 96 in the worst such attacks since September.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said that American troops killed three people, including a child, Monday when they fired on a vehicle that failed to stop at a roadblock north of Baghdad. The incident occurred after U.S. forces had attacked suspected al Qaida in Iraq members near the town of Bayji, killing four, a military statement said.

During that action, a vehicle failed to stop when soldiers signaled and fired warning shots. The soldiers then opened fire, killing two men in the car. Soldiers discovered the wounded child when they searched the vehicle later, but the child died while being treated at a military hospital, the statement said.

Sunday's killings revived fears that Iraqi security forces are in league with Shiite militias to carry out attacks. A family member who wasn't at the house when the attack occurred said neighbors told him that the gunmen arrived in a Toyota Land Cruiser with no license plates and used explosives without drawing a response from an Iraqi police checkpoint nearby.

The killings came after the journalist, Dhia al Kawazz, who edits a Web site from Amman, Jordan, that's frequently critical of militia groups, was warned to stop his work, said the family member, who asked to be identified only as Abu Mohammed. Kawazz was in Amman during the attack.

"As you've noticed, there is no one seeking an investigation, and no investigation has been opened," said Ibrahim al Saraj, who heads the Association to Defend Iraqi Journalists' Rights in Iraq. Saraj said the killings were part of a campaign to attack journalists "to dim the news in this country and to oppress journalistic freedom in Iraq."

Journalists are frequent targets of violence in Iraq. At least 206 journalists and media assistants have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, according to the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters without Borders, which condemned the killings on Monday.

But Sunday's killings also provided a chilling look at why Baghdad remains a city governed by fear, despite declines in violence hailed by Iraqi and U.S. officials.

Abu Mohammed, Kawazz's relative, said neighbors told him that the Land Cruiser was carrying five men when it pulled up in front of Kawazz's house at 7:30 a.m. Four gunmen got out and used some type of explosive to enter the house, where members of the family were eating breakfast. One man stayed in the vehicle, its engine running.

The four gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons, Abu Mohammed said, killing seven children, two women who reportedly were Kawazz's sisters and their husbands. Kawazz's mother survived because she was on the roof, Abu Mohammed said.

The men detonated another explosive as they left the house, but nearby police made no effort to stop the assailants as they drove away, said Mohammed, a colleague who refused to be identified, and Saraj.

Kawazz, a Shiite, runs an electronic news agency that often criticizes the U.S. and Iranian "occupations" in Iraq as well as the Mahdi Army and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its military wing, the Badr Organization. His Web site, www.aliraqnews.com, often drops the honorific "sayed" or "honored one" from before Sadr's name, and Kawazz recently published a lengthy article detailing divisions within the Mahdi Army.

Kawazz was told of the killings by a third sister on Sunday. His Web site published an account of the attack on Monday and accused "sectarian militias" of the crime.

Abu Mohammed said that Kawazz had received letter and telephone threats to stop his work. "They are seeking to make Iraq empty of journalists who can report the truth," he said.

Reached by phone in Amman, Kawazz broke down in tears when asked about the incident.

"To all Iraqi journalists, keep your families alive and be aware for your families' lives," he sobbed. "Just keep your family alive — that is my message."

On Friday, an assailant fired shots at two journalists from the Lebanese newspaper Dar al Hayat as they drove through the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada, a Shiite district that's generally considered safer than much of the capital.

Abdul Wahid Toma and his wife, Sodad al Salihi, were taking their 2-year-old daughter to the doctor when a young man in a car called out Toma's name. As they turned right, the car sped up and passed them, and someone opened fire. Neither the journalists nor their daughter was injured.

A roundup of Iraq violence is available daily at www.mcclatchydc.com/iraq/

(Al Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)

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