Masked gunmen killed 15 people in a daring daytime robbery Tuesday, blasting their way into a Baghdad street of goldsmiths and shooting customers and storekeepers before fleeing with armfuls of gold.
Security officials quickly blamed the brazen midday attack in the southwestern neighborhood of Bayaa on the Sunni militant Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is known to at least partially fund its operations through extortion and crime in the cities of Baghdad and Mosul.
Witnesses said 15 to 20 gunmen, wearing scarves over their faces and using pistols fitted with silencers, took part in the raid. The thieves blocked the street with their vehicles and threw grenades as they moved among the stores, smashing windows and grabbing cash and jewelry.
On a street dotted with pools of blood and piles of broken glass, residents wondered how the gang had managed to launch such a well-organized attack in an area surrounded by blast walls and many checkpoints.
“There are checkpoints, how could they carry this out?” asked Abu Shahad, 28, a resident of the street. “Surely they must have some senior figure in the government supporting them.”
Authorities immediately said they had detained the security officials responsible for the area on suspicion of negligence and had also detained two suspected assailants. Two policemen who raced to the scene were injured, and officials said one of the gunmen was killed.
Goldsmiths are a common target in Baghdad, and there have been several similar raids over the last year in which at least 20 goldsmiths and passersby have died.
The government has recently claimed big successes in the battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq, with dozens of middle- and top-level leaders detained or killed, including the organization’s two top leaders, who were slain in a raid by Iraqi and U.S. forces in April. Two recently arrested Al Qaeda leaders, an Algerian and a Saudi, confessed last week to participating in a number of robberies of jewelry stores, a prominent currency exchange dealer and a bank to fund the group’s activities, police said.
But the biggest heist of the last year, in which about $4 million was stolen from a Baghdad bank, was found to have been committed by the guards of one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Adel Abdul Mehdi. The money was recovered in offices belonging to a newspaper run by his political party.
Redha is a staff writer in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau.