Rebels kill 16, raise al Qaeda flag
Group trying to regroup while country lacks political instability
BAGHDAD — Militants flew an al Qaeda flag over a Baghdad neighborhood Thursday after killing 16 security officials and burning some of their bodies in an afternoon attack that served as a grim reminder of continued insurgent strength in Iraq’s capital.
It was the bloodiest attack in a day that included the deaths of 23 Iraqi soldiers, policemen and other security forces across the country who were targeted by shootings and roadside bombs.
The mayhem serves as a stark warning that insurgents are trying to make a comeback three months after two leaders were killed in an airstrike on their safehouse, and as the U.S. military presence decreases day by day.
The complex attack began when militants struck a checkpoint in the largely Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah, once a stronghold of insurgents that in recent years has become more peaceful. Then the militants set it on fire, burning several of the soldiers’ bodies, according to an army officer who was on patrol in the neighborhood. Minutes later, attackers detonated three roadside bombs nearby.
Hospital, police and military officials all confirmed the death toll.
Police and army officials said 16 to 20 assailants took part in the highly orchestrated attack; all appeared to have escaped.
A day before the Azamiyah attack, Vice President Joe Biden predicted there would not be an extreme outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq as all but 50,000 U.S. forces leave the country at the end of August. He said the American troops left behind would be more than enough to help Iraqi forces maintain security.
There’s been little indication since Iraq’s March 7 election that a government can be formed before the Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins in mid-August and brings a halt to business in much of the Middle East.
As politicians bicker, Iraqis point to such violent attacks as Thursday’s as a clear indication that the terror groups are trying to use the political instability to regroup.
Officials in Azamiyah said the provocative flag-planting and bold attack are part of an attempt by the terror group to once again infiltrate the Sunni neighborhood.
“Al Qaeda is trying their best to return to Iraq or to Azamiyah, because they have no existence here now,” said a member of the Azamiyah provincial council, Haitham al-Azami. “Al Qaeda, by this act intends to pretend that they have an existence and to show their muscles.”
The daylight attack was the boldest move by militants since their commando-style assault on the central bank in June that left 26 people dead during the morning rush hour. Suicide bombings, roadside bombs and nighttime assassinations are part of their pattern of violence.
Iraqi security forces gather at a checkpoint in Baghdad that was attacked by up to 20 militants Thursday. The armed assault was followed by the detonation of three roadside bombs nearby.