Gunmen execute 14 Shiite truck drivers in Iraq

Gunmen execute 14 Shiite truck drivers in Iraq

Gunmen execute 14 Shiite truck drivers in Iraq

A family walks past the site of a car bomb attack at Tobchi, predominantly Shiite district of Baghdad. Militants ambush Shiite convoy in northern Iraq and kill 14 people, the latest in a series of attacks aiming to destabilize the nation. REUTERS photo

Dozens of Sunni militants set up a roadblock on a highway north of Baghdad July 25, stopping trucks, checking IDs and then summarily executed 14 Shiite drivers, in the latest in a series of brazen attacks aiming to further destabilize the nation.

The attackers first fired mortar rounds at a nearby military base and bombed a communication tower to draw security forces’ attention away before intercepting the convoy late at night on July 24 near Sarha village, said Col. Hussein Ali Rasheed. The village is located just outside the northern city of Tuz Khurmatu, about 200 kilometers north of Baghdad.

Two local officials said some 150 militants carried out a coordinated 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 July 24. 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 Shiites.

“These criminals belong to what is called the Islamic State of Iraq, and they targeted Shiite drivers and left the Sunnis,” local official Shalal Abdul Baban said, referring to an al-Qaeda front group. “It was killing by ID,” he added. Iraqi identification cards list a person’s name and place of birth, from which their religious affiliation can be surmised.

According to Rasheed, the city’s police chief, confirmed that all the casualties were Shiite truck drivers from Baghdad and their assistants. Their bodies were found with gunshots to the head, he said.

The attack was reminiscent of the darkest days of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian bloodshed in Iraq in 2006-07, 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 Shiites have been inflamed by persistent violence in Iraq and the civil war in neighboring Syria, and there are growing fears that Iraq is slipping back toward all-out sectarian conflict.

The highway killings come just days after a highly-coordinated 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 notorious Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, and Taji, north of the capital, with mortar rounds, bombs and gunfire beginning on the night of July 21, sparking clashes with security forces that lasted for 10 hours. At least 500 prisoners, including senior al-Qaeda members, escaped during the unrest, while at least 20 security forces members and 21 prisoners died.

Further north, in the city of Kirkuk, a parked car bomb targeted a passing police patrol July 25 morning, critically wounding six policemen, police Col. Salah Abdul-Qadir said.

Across Iraq, insurgents have in recent months escalated attacks on civilians and government forces. The violence has reached levels not seen since 2008, fueling worries of a return to the widespread sectarian killing that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. More than 3,000 people have been killed since April.

Compiled from AFP and AP stories by the Daily News staff.