BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Al Qaeda in Iraq has claimed responsibility for two attacks against its former Sunni Muslim allies which killed at least 43 people last Sunday.
In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber struck members of the government-backed “Sahwa” militia as they lined up to be paid on Baghdad’s southwestern outskirts, killing at least 39 and wounding 41, Iraqi security sources said.
In the second, a suicide bomber killed four and wounded six at a meeting of local Sunni militia leaders in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, police in Anbar province said.
In a statement posted on a website often used by Islamists, al Qaeda said it had conducted the attacks as part of action against “leaders of apostasy”, a term used for Sunni fighters who once allied with al Qaeda but turned on the militant group in 2006/07, helping U.S. forces turn the tide in the war.
“A lion of the Islamic State managed to intrude among the cattle after they were blinded by pickings of money thrown by the … government and they fell into the torture of God,” the statement said.
Sunni Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda have sought to exploit the political vacuum created by a failure of Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish factions to agree on a coalition government following an inconclusive March 7 parliamentary election, and have carried out a series of attacks since the vote.
Sahwa leaders have been among the primary targets. Some of the attacks have been attributed to acts of revenge by former fellow insurgents, while others have been blamed on long-running blood feuds between families.
The sectarian conflict between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ites that began after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has largely subsided but a Sunni Islamist insurgency persists.
The U.S. military has increasingly taken a backseat role since pulling out of Iraqi urban centers in June last year and U.S. troops will end combat operations formally on August 31, before a full withdrawal next year
U.S. military leaders say al Qaeda’s capabilities in Iraq have been severely degraded in recent months.
General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said in early June that 34 of the top 42 al Qaeda leaders in Iraq had been killed or captured in the previous 90 days.