Shi'ite truck drivers executed in Iraq

2013-07-25 15:00
Iraqi police secure a road leading to the town of Sulaiman Bek, where gunmen killed 14 truck drivers and stole their vehicles. (AFP)

Iraqi police secure a road leading to the town of Sulaiman Bek, where gunmen killed 14 truck drivers and stole their vehicles. (AFP)

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Kirkuk - Dozens of Sunni militants set up a roadblock on a highway north of Baghdad early on Thursday, stopped trucks, checked IDs and then summarily executed 14 Shi’ite drivers, officials said.

The attack was reminiscent of the darkest days of the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian bloodshed in Iraq in 2006-2007, when thousands of people were killed due to their religious affiliation or forced to abandon their homes under threat of death.

Lingering tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites have been inflamed by persistent violence in Iraq and the civil war in neighbouring Syria, and there are growing fears that Iraq is slipping back toward all-out sectarian conflict.

Two local officials said about 150 militants carried out a co-ordinated operation during the night that included the highway killings, in the area of Sulaiman Bek, a town north of Baghdad.

The militants began by attacking the town itself with mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons late on Wednesday.

That attack drew security forces away from the highway connecting Baghdad with north Iraq, after which a group of around 40 militants broke off and set up the checkpoint.

They only maintained it for about half an hour but were able to stop dozens of truck drivers, killing 14 execution-style who were Shi’ites.

"These criminals belong to what is called the Islamic State of Iraq, and they targeted Shi’ite drivers and left the Sunnis," local official Shalal Abdul Baban told AFP, referring to an al-Qaeda front group.

"It was killing by ID," he said.

Iraqi identification cards list a person's name and place of birth, from which their religious affiliation can be surmised.

The entire operation including the attack on the town, in which at least one person was wounded, lasted for about three hours, after which the militants withdrew.

Town seized

Sulaiman Bek was briefly seized by militants in late April, but the assailants later withdrew under a deal worked out by tribal leaders and government officials, allowing security forces to move back in.

The seizure of the town came amid a surge of violence that began on 23 April, when security forces moved in against anti-government protesters near the northern town of Hawijah, sparking clashes that left 53 people dead.

Dozens more died in a wave of subsequent unrest including revenge attacks against security forces.

The highway killings come just days after a highly-co-ordinated assault by militants on two Iraqi prisons that saw hundreds of inmates escape, an operation claimed by an al-Qaeda front group.

The militants attacked prisons in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, and Taji, north of the capital, with mortar rounds, bombs and gunfire beginning on Sunday night, sparking clashes with security forces that lasted for 10 hours.

At least 500 prisoners, including senior al-Qaeda members, escaped during, while at least 20 security forces members and 21 prisoners died in the unrest.

Interpol said in an online statement on Wednesday that the escapes "constituted a major threat to global security", and that it had issued a regional security alert at Iraq's request.

The latest attacks are indicative of the growing reach of militants in Iraq, and of the rapidly-deteriorating security situation in the country.

With the latest violence, more than 680 people have been killed in unrest in July, making it the deadliest month in a year marked by spiralling violence.

Iraq has faced years of attacks by militants, but analysts say widespread discontent among members of its Sunni Arab minority, which the government has failed to address, has fuelled the surge in unrest this year.

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  iraq  |  religion

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