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Disguised gunmen kill dozens in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- Gunmen wearing military uniforms over explosives belts charged into a government building in Saddam Hussein's hometown yesterday in an attack that left 56 people dead, including 15 hostages who were shot execution-style.

The five-hour standoff in Tikrit ended only when the attackers blew themselves up in one of the bloodiest days in Iraq this year.

American troops who were nearby as part of an advising mission with Iraqi forces responded to the attack, and some U.S. soldiers received minor wounds, said military spokesman Col. Barry Johnson. The U.S. troops dropped back after Iraqi forces took control, Johnson said.

Attacks have ebbed in recent years, but the looming deadline for the U.S. troops to withdraw from the country along with political unrest elsewhere in the Mideast have raised fears of a return to violence.

The standoff in Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, 80 miles north of Baghdad, began around 1 p.m. when the attackers blew up a car outside the council headquarters to create a diversion before launching their raid.

Wearing military uniforms, including one with a high rank, the gunmen identified themselves as Iraqi soldiers at a security checkpoint outside the government compound but opened fire on guards when they were told they needed to be searched.

Later they set fire to the bodies of the three slain provincial councilmen in a defiant show of how insurgents maintain the ability to carry out brutal attacks despite years of U.S.-Iraqi military efforts against them.

"Why did they shoot him and set fire to his poor body?" said provincial government spokesman Mohammed al-Asi, trying not to weep about the killing of elderly lawmaker Mehdi al-Aaran, who headed the council's religious affairs committee.

Speaking in a muted voice, Salahuddin Gov. Ahmed Abdullah called the attack "a tragic incident carried out by ruthless terrorists."

Iraqi officials were quick to blame al-Qaida in Iraq for the slaughter, noting that execution-style killings and suicide bombers are hallmarks of the extremist group.

Among the dead were councilman Abdullah Jebara, a vocal al-Qaida foe; the council's health committee chairman, Wathiq al-Sammaraie; and Iraqi journalist Sabah al-Bazi, a correspondent for Al-Arabiya satellite TV channel and a freelancer for CNN and Reuters.

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