Iraq: more sectarian slaughter

From the LA Times, July 18:

Masked gunmen kill 42 in attack at Shiite market in Mahmoudiya

BAGHDAD — Masked gunmen wielding rocket launchers and grenades swarmed a predominantly Shiite market in a town south of the capital Monday morning, firing at terrified men, women and children on the streets.

At least 42 Iraqi civilians were killed and dozens injured in the 30-minute rampage through the central market of Mahmoudiya, hospital officials said. The U.S. military said 40 people were killed and 90 injured in the incident.

Other local officials counted much higher casualty figures, and there were multiple reports that a second set of clashes broke out in the area later as darkness prevailed.

Three U.S. soldiers also were reported killed in separate combat incidents. One U.S. soldier serving in western Baghdad died of gunshot wounds Monday, another died in a bomb blast south of Baghdad and a third was killed “due to enemy action” in western Anbar province, the military said.

Morgue officials reported the discovery of 32 bodies of Iraqi men, found with their hands bound, bodies bloodied and bullet wounds to the head in various parts of the capital.

Several large explosions could be heard in southern Baghdad as a nightly 9 p.m. curfew went into affect.

Sectarian violence and tensions have fueled a huge exodus of families from religiously mixed areas. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration said in a news release Monday that 26,858 families had been forced to move, mostly out of fear of sectarian violence and rampant lawlessness in some parts of country.

Following the attack on Mahmoudiya, residents and officials accused police of barricading themselves in their headquarters as the multipronged attack unfolded, raising questions about the competency of Iraq’s security forces as the U.S. attempts to hand authority over to local police and soldiers.

“The terrorists wanted to send a message saying we can attack anywhere we want and kill civilians,” said Sheik Bassem Anizi, an official in the area, who along with other witnesses spoke by telephone.

The town is in a region south of the capital known locally as the Triangle of Death, close to where a group of U.S. soldiers allegedly raped an Iraqi girl and killed her and family members in March, and where two U.S. soldiers were kidnapped, mutilated and slain last month.

The marketplace, about 350 yards long and filled with humble shops, eateries, bakeries and produce stands, is often filled in the morning with women and the elderly shopping for groceries and eating breakfast.

The gunmen, estimated to be at least 50 strong, swarmed the town’s busy central market from the direction of nearby railroad tracks shortly before 9 a.m., driving into town in cars after firing mortar rounds.

They carried rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, AK-47s and hand grenades. They shot at fleeing residents, tossed grenades into restaurants, cafes and shops and, according to several witnesses, sprayed panicked residents with powerful machine guns mounted on the flatbeds of pickup trucks.

“There were dozens of them,” said Majed Shammari, a government official eating his breakfast at a downtown restaurant when the shooting began. “I ran into a corner of the restaurant to avoid the shooting.”

The U.S. military said Iraqi and American soldiers, hearing reports of at least eight explosions from the area, responded immediately and were shot at. In a nearby house, they captured two suspected insurgents with two rocket-propelled grenade launchers, an AK-47 and a bag containing grenades.

There were no reported American, Iraqi army or police casualties, a fact that irked Mahmoudiya’s mayor, Mouyad Fadhil Saif.

“It’s a very, very bad sign,” he said. “The subject needs to be investigated. The attack targeted civilians. It’s the job of the security forces to protect civilians.”

Iraqi television showed scenes of Iraqi soldiers walking through a charred landscape of burned-out shops and smoldering cars. The street was littered with the detritus of overturned fruit and vegetable stands. Pools of blood collected in gutters.

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