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Al Qa'eda hand suspected in Iraq massacre

Gunmen wearing military uniforms executed 24 civilians and tribal fighters, in what Iraqi security forces say may have been a revenge attack by al Qa'eda militants.

Mourners with bodies of relatives killed outside Baghdad, apparently targeted for turning against al Qa'eda.
Mourners with bodies of relatives killed outside Baghdad, apparently targeted for turning against al Qa'eda.

BAGHDAD // Gunmen wearing military uniforms executed 24 civilians and tribal fighters late on Friday night, in what Iraqi security forces say may have been a revenge attack by al Qa'eda militants. Five women were reportedly among those handcuffed and shot dead in the village of Albusaifi, on the southern fringe of Baghdad. Police sources said some of the victims had been tortured before being murdered.

Another seven people, also apparently handcuffed and about to be executed, were found alive by Iraqi security units dispatched to the scene. "An investigation is under way and we have not reached any firm conclusions," said an officer in Baghdad's command centre, which oversees security in the capital. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media. "We have arrested 18 people from a neighbouring village, and suspect these were revenge killings."

The mainly Sunni tribal zone south of Baghdad was once notoriously dangerous, a central battleground in sectarian slaughter that came to grip the country after 2005. Powerful tribes there sided with al Qa'eda-inspired Islamic extremists, allied in their insurgency against US forces and the new Shiite-led government. That situation reversed with the so-called awakening, when tribes turned their guns on al Qa'eda, siding with US and Iraqi government forces. The formation of tribal awakening councils - Sahwa in Arabic - played a critical role in establishing stability in the once-lawless area.

According to the Baghdad-based security officer, that history of bloodshed probably was behind the latest killings. "A lot of insurgents and al Qa'eda terrorists were arrested or killed by the Iraqi Army and the Sahwa forces in the last years," he said. "Those things are not easily forgotten in Iraq and there are some groups and people out for revenge. They will not stop until they get it." He also warned that al Qa'eda's influence, long held to be on the wane, had not disappeared. "That kind of thinking, that mentality still has a lot of influence there."

"It's not strong enough to be a threat to the government and it will not result in a new civil war, but it is a serious threat to the local people." The Sahwa tribal scheme, which once employed some 100,000 fighters nationwide, all of them paid retainers not to fight the government, is now in the process of being wound down. Those on the tribal payrolls have been promised alternative jobs but there are widespread complaints that pledge has not been met, prompting fears that disgruntled and unemployed former insurgents will again pick up their weapons.

Sahwa leaders have also complained that, with US troops pulling back, they have been left to face al Qa'eda without support from Shiite-dominated central authorities long suspicious of having a heavily armed Sunni militia force. According to a report carried by the Reuters news agency, those involved in the Albusaifi attack spoke English and used a translator to talk to locals before beginning carrying out the murders. The report said locals believed it was an attempt to pass the blame onto United States forces.

Ahmad Khafarji, an independent political analyst based in the Iraqi capital, said there were growing signs of a campaign by al Qa'eda loyalists targeting the Sahwa councils. "If you pay attention to the violence that is still going on here, you'll see that more than 40 Sahwa fighters or leaders have been killed in the last few months, in Anbar, in Diyala, in Salahaddin, in Baghdad," he said. "It's a problem that many have not noticed, but it could suddenly become a major issue.

"Al Qa'eda is saying, 'we will hunt you down and kill you in the end for turning against us' and that message may well frighten tribes at this time of uncertainty, it will make them question even more the strength of the government." Iraq remains in a state of political limbo following the March 7 parliamentary elections. No single group emerged with a decisive victory, making drawn-out negotiations inevitable as various factions seek to form a coalition capable of forming a new government.

Iraqis and international observers fear insurgents will seek to capitalise on any prolonged period of political drift. US combat forces are scheduled for withdrawal from Iraq by August and it remains unclear whether a new government will be in place by then. nlatif@thenational.ae