BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Al Qaeda militants killed at least eight members of a neighborhood police patrol in southern Baghdad on Thursday after taking them by surprise by driving up in a stolen Iraqi army vehicle, police said.
The al Qaeda fighters had commandeered the vehicle from two Iraqi soldiers whom they shot.
They opened fire on the police patrol in the Hawr Rajab area of southern Baghdad’s Doura district, a mainly Sunni Arab area and al Qaeda stronghold, after approaching in at least one of two vehicles they had stolen.
An Interior Ministry official confirmed that eight “Awakening Council” members had been killed. He said three Iraqi soldiers were killed and another three were wounded, and that two al Qaeda gunmen had also been killed.
Mainly Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs have been organizing young men into local police units, known as concerned local citizens, to drive out Sunni Islamist al Qaeda. These have been partly credited for falling levels of violence in Iraq.
Police at Baghdad’s Yarmouk hospital said two Iraqi army “humvee” vehicles had been seized at the start of the attack and police at the Hawr Rajab checkpoint did not challenge the occupants because they took them for soldiers.
The bodies of the eight neighborhood police and two soldiers were taken to the Yarmouk hospital in western Baghdad, Iraqi police said. Another four members of the patrol were wounded.
Reuters Television footage showed several coffins loaded onto the back of a police truck to be taken to hospital. Another was tied to the top of a dilapidated car.
A young woman and two toddlers, one of them crying, sat on the ground next to one simple wooden coffin.
Separately, Iraqi soldiers supported by U.S. forces killed 19 al Qaeda fighters north of Baquba, Major-General Abdul-Karim al-Rubaie, the head of Iraqi military operations in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, told Reuters.
The al Qaeda fighters were killed in an area controlled by the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq, he said. Two members of a neighborhood police unit there were killed in the operation and another three were wounded.
The neighborhood police patrols, backed by the U.S. military as part of a counter-insurgency strategy, have been spreading through other areas after they were pioneered last year in western Anbar, once the most dangerous province in Iraq.
Attacks on neighborhood police units are not uncommon but Thursday’s bold assault was one of the largest of its kind in Baghdad.
On November 13, U.S. and Iraqi forces killed an estimated 15 al Qaeda gunmen in a fierce, day-long battle in Adwaniya, just south of Baghdad, after al Qaeda fighters attacked two neighborhood police checkpoints there.