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Brazen Baghdad gold heist ends with 15 dead

May 25, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Gunmen wearing Arab headscarves and wielding assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and pistols robbed a gold jewelry market in broad daylight Tuesday, killing 15 people in the most brazen example of Baghdad street crime that has soared as sectarian fighting ebbed. Authorities blamed al-Qaida in Iraq, as they often are quick to do after major attacks and as the investigations are just getting under way.

"The fingerprints of al-Qaida are obvious in today's heist," Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad's chief military spokesman said, speaking a couple of hours after the late-morning assault. He said the terror group has been suffering from money shortages and has been planning robberies as a way to fill its coffers.

Security officials attribute at least part of the past year's crime wave to terror groups looking for new ways to finance their operations, and insurgents adept at launching attacks against military targets now using their skills to make money instead.

Jewelry stores, currency exchanges, and banks are frequently targeted, though insurgents looking for quick cash have also been known to attack oil pipelines to siphon off oil for resale. Aside from known militants, criminal gangs have been blamed for a number of robberies in the capital.

There are few statistics tracking the number and kinds of crimes, partly because the government remains focused on bombings and other insurgent attacks. But street crime has added to the woes of ordinary Iraqis, already plagued by years of war and a lack of electricity and other services.

With U.S. troops out of Iraqi cities since last summer, many Baghdad residents blame Iraqi security forces for failing to protect them.

"The continuing robberies and heists are a clear indication of the weakness and effectiveness of our security forces," Omar Fadhil, a taxi driver in western Baghdad, said Tuesday.

"Iraqi soldiers and policemen are strong and bold against innocent and peaceful civilians, but when troubles by outlaws or insurgents take place, they become something else," Fadhil said.

Authorities detained members of the security unit in charge of the Baiyaa area where the attack took place, although it wasn't clear whether they were suspected of complicity or negligence.

The heist began when the attackers set off a roadside bomb near the gold shops, killing four bystanders and wounding three, police said. Minutes later, gunmen riding in five or six vehicles swept in, carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers, rifles and pistols, said a witness, Mohammed Elaiwi Nassir.

The gunmen fired shots in the air and threw percussion grenades to frighten off bystanders, he said.

As one of their vehicles blocked the street to prevent a rescue, the gunmen opened fire on 12 shops, killing nine gold shop owners or their workers and two bystanders, police said. A hospital official confirmed the number of casualties.

The gunmen then scooped up the gold and fled. The value of the stolen gold was not known or revealed.

"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 30 minutes, the security forces came," said Nassir.

There is a security checkpoint about 800 yards (meters) from the shops that were robbed.

Some of the shop owners had AK-47 rifles, not unusual in a country that has seen so much violence and where people often rely on themselves for protection. But the attack happened so quickly, they had little chance to use them.

Al-Moussawi, the military spokesman, said security forces killed one gunmen and arrested two.

A dead body that police and witnesses said belonged to one of the assailants was covered with a cloth on the bloodstained sidewalk among the shattered glass of shop windows.

An Iraqi security official said the sophisticated and highly orchestrated attack suggested al-Qaida, as did the use of pistols fixed with silencers.

He also said documents seized during an April raid resulting in the deaths of the two top al-Qaida in Iraq figures revealed instructions to rob banks, jewelry stores and exchange houses as a way to finance the group's activities.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly, as did police and hospital officials.

Al-Moussawi blamed al-Qaida for an unsuccessful attempt to rob a private bank in the Mansour neighborhood of western Baghdad several weeks ago. He said authorities believe al-Qaida was also behind at least several big robberies of currency exchanges in the capital over the past year, although he noted that gangs have carried out many similar attacks.

In early May, four people were killed when gunmen attacked a jewelry store in Baghdad. One of the suspects drove off in an Iraqi army Humvee before he was shot and killed by police.

Earlier this year, gunmen stole about 80 million Iraqi dinars - almost $70,000 - from a candy factory in eastern Baghdad.

And in December in the northern city of Kirkuk, gunmen disguised in military clothes pretended to chase a suicide bomber into a bank, where they then stole thousands of dollars.


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