Uniformed gunmen kill 24 Iraqis

Gunmen wearing Iraqi military uniforms raided homes in a Sunni village south of Baghdad, killing at least 24 people, including five women, in execution-style attacks, officials said Saturday.
Iraqi Awakening Council members, Sunnis who turned against al-Qaeda and now help Iraqi forces provide security, patrol in the Azamiyah area of north Baghdad on Saturday. ((Hadi Mizban/Associated Press))
Gunmen wearing Iraqi military uniforms raided homes in a Sunni village south of Baghdad, killing at least 24 people in execution-style attacks, officials said Saturday.

An army official said many of the victims, who included five women, were brutalized "beyond recognition."

At least seven people were found alive, bound with handcuffs, said Baghdad's security spokesman, Maj.-Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi.

In the hours after Friday night's shootings, Iraqi officials cordoned off the area to search for suspects and helicopters swarmed overhead.

"The area has many orchards and streams, so it is difficult to secure, but we are investigating," al-Moussawi told The Associated Press. He said the killings bear "an obvious al-Qaeda hallmark."

Handcuffed, sprayed with machine-guns

Many of the dead were members of local Sahwa, or Awakening Councils — one of several names for the Sunni fighters who changed the course of the war when they revolted against al-Qaeda in Iraq and joined the Americans in late 2006 and 2007, officials said. The fighters are also known as Sons of Iraq.

A senior Iraqi army official who arrived at the scene Friday evening said the bodies were handcuffed and had been sprayed up and down with machine-gun fire. He spoke on condition of anonymity. He said some of the bodies were left "beyond recognition."

Mustafa Kamel, a Sahwa leader south of Baghdad, said the attack happened late Friday in a village in the Arab Jabour area, about 25 kilometres south of Baghdad. Arab Jabour is a collection of industrial zones, villages and palm and citrus groves in the Sunni belt around Baghdad's southern perimeter.

An official at Iraq's Interior Ministry confirmed the attack and said the victims were 20 men and five women and that the attackers wore military uniforms.

He did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Al-Moussawi said 24 people were confirmed dead, although other officials put the toll at 25.

Many of the Sons of Iraq were former insurgents who later teamed up with the Americans against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The move, known as the Awakening, was credited  — along with the surge of tens of thousands of U.S. troops  — in helping quell the violence.

Election leaders joust for power

But the question of what to do with these nearly 100,000 people in the long term remains. The U.S. handed over control last year of the Awakening Councils to Iraq, which pays their roughly $300 monthly salaries.

The violence comes as Iraq's major political blocs scramble to get enough parliamentary support to form a government after results from the March 7 election gave no single group enough seats to govern alone.

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's cross-sectarian bloc tapped into heavy Sunni support to come in just two seats ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's mainly Shia list.

Many fear drawn-out political negotiations to form a government could spill over into violence and complicate American efforts to speed up troop withdrawals in the coming months.

Also Saturday, a roadside bomb exploded as a bus was passing, wounding seven passengers, about 60 kilometres south of Baghdad, said police spokesman Maj. Muthana Khalid.