Masked men armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles shot up a jewelry market in Baghdad Tuesday, killing 15 people before they fled with a large quantity of gold in an attack authorities swiftly blamed on a cash-strapped al-Qaida in Iraq.
The attack was the latest in a violent crime wave in Iraq that has swelled over the past year as sectarian fighting has dramatically ebbed. Authorities have blamed similar robberies in the past on battle-hardened former insurgents unable to find legitimate work.
The area of the attack in the southwestern neighborhood of Baiyaa was later sealed off by security forces. A dead body that police and witnesses said belonged to one of the assailants was covered with a cloth on the bloodstained sidewalk amid the shattered glass of shop windows.
"They started shooting in the air to clear the street and also threw percussion grenades," Mohammed Elaiwi Nassir, a witness who owns a real estate office nearby, told The Associated Press. "Then they started shooting directly at the gold shops' showcases from outside and scooping up gold in their hands," he added.
"The attack lasted about 15 minutes during which only one policeman showed up, but he was shot in his shoulder and leg by the attackers. After thirty minutes, the security forces came," said Nassir.
He said the attackers were heavily armed with RPGs, rifles and pistols fitted with silencers. They arrived close to 11:30 a.m. in five or six cars, one of them a minibus. Each vehicle had three gunmen inside, and police said their faces were covered with the traditional checkered Arab headscarves known as keffiyehs.
One gunman allegedly killed
Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad's chief military spokesman, said security forces killed one gunman and arrested two.
The Baghdad security command said authorities have detained members of the security unit in charge of Baiyaa for questioning. It did not say whether they were suspected of complicity or negligence.
Police said they seized a minibus left about 50 yards from the attack site. Inside, they found one RPG launcher with three rockets, three AK-47 assault rifles and four sticky bombs usually used to blow up cars.
Al-Moussawi and another security official said the methods and means used, such as silencers, and the accuracy and organization of the operation, pointed to al-Qaida.
"We expect that al-Qaida is behind this operation because recently, al-Qaida has been suffering form fund shortages and we have information that al-Qaida is planning robberies. The fingerprints of al-Qaida are obvious in today's heist," he told The Associated Press.
However, Iraqi authorities are often quick to blame violence on al-Qaida in Iraq, even before their investigations are concluded or begun.
Police in the northern city of Mosul blamed al-Qaida in Iraq Tuesday for a drive-by shooting a day earlier that killed Bashar Mohammed Hamid Ahmed, a newly elected Sunni lawmaker. Sunni officials have sometimes been targeted by insurgent groups, who see them as collaborators with the Shiite-dominated government in this country riven by sectarian strains.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Sabri, commander of federal police in Mosul, said a preliminary investigation of one person detained on suspicion of involvement linked him to al-Qaida.
The jewelry shops in Baiyaa are clustered in two buildings at one end of a busy market street with many other types of stores.
There is a security checkpoint about 800 yards from the shops. And police said some of the shop owners attacked had licensed weapons, including AK-47s and other guns, which they kept inside the shops largely as a deterrent. But they said the owners were taken by surprise, and did not have the chance to defend themselves.
Police said the attackers first set off a roadside bomb near the shops, killing four bystanders and wounding three. Then they opened fire on 12 shops, killing nine gold shop owners or their workers and two bystanders. A hospital official confirmed the number of casualties.
The police and hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
In past robberies, jewelry stores have been frequent targets, along with homes, cars, currency exchanges, pawn shops and banks have also been hit. But Tuesday's attack was one of the deadliest in the crime wave.
Several weeks ago, al-Moussawi blamed al-Qaida for an attempt to rob a private bank in the Mansour neighborhood of western Baghdad that was foiled by security forces.
He said authorities believed al-Qaida was also behind at least several big robberies of currency exchanges in Baghdad over the past year, according to the confessions of people involved.
But he said other robberies were carried out by criminal gangs.
Al-Qaida short on cash?
Another security official also said al-Qaida in Iraq is short on cash and could have organized Tuesday's heist, though it was too early to confirm it. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
In past years, insurgents in Iraq were believed to have turned to crime to finance their operations. In late 2007, they were blamed for attacking oil plants and trucks and punching through pipelines to steal crude they then smuggled to neighboring countries to sell.
There are few statistics tracking the number and kinds of crimes, in part because the government remains focused on the bombings and other insurgent attacks that continue throughout Iraq.
But crime has added to the woes of ordinary Iraqis, already plagued by years of war and a lack of electricity and other services.
In April last year, Iraq created a military task force to battle gangland-style crime after gunmen killed at least seven people during a daylight heist of jewelry stores.